In the aftermath of Tuesday’s State of the Union speech, pundits are analyzing President Obama’s speech from every angle. How big were his ideas? How much will Republicans say it was partisan? How good were the jokes? From what I’ve read, most seem to think the answers to those questions are not so much, plenty and very, very bad.
But while policy, performance and humor are all part of the president’s job, I wondered how well Obama came off as a leader in the speech. This is a chief executive, after all, who has been blasted for being too hesitant in his decision-making, too aloof and cool in his relations with voters, and too quick to give ground to his opponents. From both the left and the right — fairly at times, while not at others — the president’s leadership has been called into question. How well did he answer his critics on that front Tuesday night?
First, I personally think the State of the Union speech is set up to make doing that very, very hard. While the Constitution may require that the president “from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient,” giving an actual speech is more tradition than requirement. Indeed, during the 1800s, the State of the Union was apparently provided via a written report to Congress rather than as an orally delivered speech. The laundry lists of ideas and policies that won’t get done in an election year, the pomp and circumstance that can set expectations sky high, the effort to mention every possible issue in a single speech lest he get skewered for leaving something out — each of these makes the State of the Union, by definition, a poor vehicle for inspiring the people you lead.
Given that, how did Obama do? I give him a B. First, he made it clear that he would be a proactive president in this final year of his first, and possibly last, term. “I will fight obstruction with action,” he said, referencing Congressional dysfunction. In announcing a clean energy initiative, he told members of Congress, “So far, you haven’t acted. Well tonight, I will.” He spoke of an executive order that will help to clear away red tape on infrastructure projects. “With or without this Congress, I will keep taking actions that help the economy grow.” We may not always agree that the actions he plans to take are good, but his promise to be proactive in the face of Congressional gridlock is what we expect to hear from a president.
Second, while many called the speech partisan and an example of election-year campaigning, I think he offered a particularly poignant vision for how we might all work together. He didn’t simply use empty rhetoric to describe a hard-to-fathom kumbaya world. Rather, he gave us a role model to aspire to and told memorable stories about an American institution that knows how to put its differences aside. In both opening and closing his speech, Obama reminded Americans of how the military “exceeds all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences.” With so much faith lost in so many of our institutions — from government to business to even religious leaders — Obama’s invocation of the military was a reminder that some are still worthy of imitating. “When you're in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind.”
He also told stories, like all good leaders do, to help illustrate his points more vividly. “One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names,” the president shared. “Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn't matter. Just like it didn't matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates — a man who was George Bush's defense secretary; and Hillary Clinton, a woman who ran against me for president.” Those two images are ones that are likely to stick with anyone who listened.
Where I think he seemed less like a leader was his seeming unwillingness to appropriately address some of the biggest challenges our country faces. Several of his new ideas mentioned early in the speech felt narrow (community colleges and job retraining) or were related to important but vague issues (teacher incentives). Meanwhile, he brought up Medicare, Social Security and the deficit only very briefly, and buried the scant attention they received in the middle of the speech. Anyone, Democrat or Republican, knows that beyond the state of the economy, these are the biggest challenges facing our nation, even if we have different ideas about how to fix them. The best leaders don’t shy away from the biggest challenges.
I didn’t think the speech was one of Obama’s best. And as a vehicle for showing leadership on issues and ideas, it no doubt has its problems. But Obama also came across as forceful, decisive and self-aware that neither he nor his friends and enemies in the legislative branch will be role models for cooperation anytime soon. So as a leader, he at least offered us a successful model to aspire to in that of the military.
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