After three months of total immersion in Republican rhetoric and ideology on the campaign trail, it was something of a relief for me to see the actual President of the United States, not the GOP caricature, deliver his rousing State of the Union speech. It turns out that Barack Obama has been following the Republican campaign pretty closely. His speech not only was a response to the policies the Republicans have been proposing; it also pushed back, vehemently but subtly, against the style and spirit of the GOP race. It was impossible, watching Obama, to imagine him as "the most radical President in American history," as Newt Gingrich likes to say. It was also hard to see him as pro--"European-style welfare state," "socialist" or "weak" on foreign policy. The speech was pure jingo, from its celebration of the Navy SEALs to General Motors. "If the playing field is level," he said, "America will always win."
This was not a bold speech in terms of substance. The actual policy initiatives were Clintonian in their timidity. But there was a very different tone and attitude from Obama's previous annual addresses. It was confident and optimistic. America had turned a corner. Recovery was on the way. Three million jobs had been created in the past 22 months, 160,000 in the auto industry he had saved. The President's language was more colloquial. It seemed he had learned something from watching Gingrich's debate performances. The blunt power of the central declaration of the speech--that those who believe America is in decline or that its powers are waning "[don't] know what they're talking about"--was the sort of line Gingrich has used time and again to excoriate journalists, except Obama delivered it better, without the sneer. This was not soaring rhetoric; it was smashmouth, bring-it-on swagger.
And yet Obama made some concessions to the more powerful Republican arguments against him. He quoted Abraham Lincoln about government's doing only "what [the people] cannot do better by themselves and no more." He repeatedly returned to the theme of making government simpler and more responsive. He talked about streamlining job-training programs--pace Mitt Romney--so that there would be only "one program, one website and one place" for unemployed workers to go for help. He talked about an "all-of-the-above [U.S. energy] strategy"--pace Gingrich--and promised to open 75% of offshore oil and gas fields to development. He talked about scouring the federal government for stupid regulations. He cited one that could require dairy farmers to spend $10,000 cleaning up spilled milk. "I'm confident a farmer can contain a milk spill without a federal agency looking over his shoulder," he said. Ron Paul couldn't have said it any better.