How exactly do you "win the future"?
As State of the Union speeches go, this one was pretty good — as was the commentary that followed it.
Barack Obama resisted the temptation presidents usually have of presenting a long list of policy initiatives and acknowledging a long list of "everyday heroes". Instead, he found a theme and more or less stuck to it.
The president could have looked back at the past two years. Instead, his hour-long speech looked toward the future — toward "winning the future", as Obama put it.
"We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world," Obama declared in his typical tripartite rhetoric. To Al Qaeda, he said: "We will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you." And to his Republican opponents, it was: "Let's fix what needs fixing and move forward."
(He turned around and shook the hand of John Boehner, who a week earlier had led the House of Representatives in voting to repeal Obama's entire health-care reform package. At this rate, the president is going to run out of cheeks to turn.)
Expressed were the usual goals for using clean energy, building infrastructure and getting other countries to accept more American exports. Included were several new overtures to the Republicans. Obama suggested that America "lower the corporate tax rate" and "simplify the individual tax code."
These details obscure what was palpable while watching the speech: that Obama's real goal for "winning the future" is to get Americans to treat each other with respect again. He started by referring to the recent shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in saying, "What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow." He finished by saying, "It is time to leave behind the battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation."
Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, whom CNN's Wolf Blitzer called "a rising star in the Republican Party", gave the official Republican response. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan said government "controls too much, taxes too much and spends too much."
"We will transform our social safety net into a hammock," he promised in his 11-minute speech. "Just take a look at what's happening to Greece, Ireland, the United Kingdom and other nations in Europe. They didn't act fast enough," he said.
A second response
CNN was the only network on which a further, unofficial response followed — from Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Bachmann is, to put it kindly, a kind of conspiracy theorist who sees herself as representing the "Tea Party" movement.
In seven minutes, she blamed Obama for the bank bailout that George W. Bush had approved while still in office, railed against a "government which tells us which light bulbs to buy", and drew a very unclear parallel between the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima and the current debt crisis.
The CNN commentators forgot all about Obama for a while and instead debated whether it was good for the Republicans to have two competing speeches. But when talk eventually returned to Obama, Jonathan Mann pulled out the most concrete evidence by which to judge the State of the Union. He made a word cloud.
Mann pointed out that Obama had used the word "we" 165 times and the word "our" 119 times. The word "jobs"? Only 25 times. I would add that the jobs Obama talked about were jobs that would exist 20 years from now, when all the infrastructure's been fixed. Not good. Obama needs to win the present before he can win the future.
In the end, the State of the Union address is more of a ceremony than anything else. Those who don't like Obama probably spent their evening doing other things. Except... since a low point in September, Obama has been rising in the opinion polls. Tea Party activists, take note.