Nevertheless, people keep framing this bitterly born election season as part of the reality genre. ABC kicked off its broadcast of President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night with the graphics and language that would accompany a reality-style showdown, in which a long rumored comeback (that would be the president’s) finally takes center stage. ABC started with grainy images of the Republicans attacking the president’s record.
“Can he rally our country and our government in the middle of an election year?” the narrator wondered in reality’s unmistakable tone of hype, boxing rings, movie trailers. Keywords flashed across the screen — programming for airheads. “Now! Tonight . . . ”
But the Obama who spoke for an hour-plus Tuesday was still the grown-up, nobly uninterested in entertainment and touching on far too many bullet points that tested a viewer’s remaining slivers of attention span.
It was a good speech. “A great speech,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton assured the president when it was over, overheard on camera. The speech reached the length of some of the epic addresses her husband used to give in the 1990s.
Drone has dual meanings now, and the president droned. We know that Obama gives good speeches. But we also know, three years in, that some of this president’s most impressive moments on television (whether by “SOTU” or in one of his exasperated acts of oratory that accompany a political standoff) have a way of fading too quickly in the distance. His sound bites can look great on paper when the embargoed text lands in our BlackBerrys, and it will even sound fine in the moment and then . . . the speech fades, never to be requoted beyond the news cycle. It’s a strange failure in someone so naturally gifted with the essential elements of the spotlight and the microphone.
Still, this was the speech meant to predicate all the campaigning ahead (read: TV appearances and interviews and stumps), the reelection Obama must now embark on. In some ways, these are always the most anticipated SOTUs, the first appeal for a renewed relationship between a president and the electorate. The last time we needed to be charmed this way was by President George W. Bush, in 2004.
A viewer’s overwhelming impression Tuesday night is that of a president who can, for the most part, claim more credit than he will ever get from even his sanest critics: Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors lives; the troops are home from Iraq; ghastly unemployment numbers are abating — or many of the unemployed finally vanished from our statistical periphery. Some of the things are working some of the time. Whatever he’s done, it’s somehow never enough.