Why it worked

WHY IT WORKED…. I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I liked President Obama’s State of the Union address so much. The content and delivery were strong, but that’s to be expected. I think my very positive reaction has to do with the larger context and the pre-speech expectations.

Given the public’s palpable frustrations and the struggles the nation endured in 2009, there was a sense that the president would have to be vaguely apologetic during the address. He’d have to explain himself, acknowledge mistakes, and lay a new course for the year ahead. The pundits’ use of words like “reboot” and “scaled back” were ubiquitous going into the speech.

The president, though, decided not to follow the conventional script. When he was supposed to be meek, he showed confidence. When expected to be contrite, Obama seemed proud. When Republicans sought deference, the president responded with strength. Indeed, while the GOP believes electoral winds are at their backs, Obama didn’t mind teasing, confronting, challenging, and even mocking them in a good-natured way.

The fear that the president might shrink from the moment was backwards — Obama stepped up and seemed larger than ever.

There was an inherent challenge that falls on any president leading during hard times: conveying to the public that policies are working, and that things are getting/will get better, without appearing ignorant of their pain. I thought Obama threaded the needle extremely well — highlighting not just the economic hardships, but the “deficit of trust” and the pettiness that contributes to American cynicism.

Also note, Democrats have appeared on the verge of a meltdown since Massachusetts’s special election. The president not only leads the executive branch, but is also the head of the party, and made it clear to his compatriots last night that they’re going to have take a deep breath and get back to work.

“To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.”

Good advice. The underlying message of the night was that the president needs Democrats to follow his lead. Given the strength of the speech, it was an appeal that seems likely to work.

But perhaps the part of the speech that resonated most with me was the president’s call to aim high.

“I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone. Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That’s just how it is.

“Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths and pointing fingers. We can do what’s necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what’s best for the next generation.

“But I also know this: If people had made that decision 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, we wouldn’t be here tonight. The only reason we are here is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard; to do what was needed even when success was uncertain; to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and their grandchildren.”

It was as assertive as it was persuasive. If he can translate this vision and leadership style into a concrete action, 2010 will be far stronger than 2009.