Obama's SOTU Success: Making Democrats the Party of Optimism

In a deft State of the Union address, President Obama turns the tables on the GOP, redefining the Democratic Party and himself

  • Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

    President Obama delivers his 2011 State of the Union

    We never really came up with a catchy name for the past decade — the Awful Oughts? The Total Zeros? Whatever it was, the decadus horribilis is officially over. Barack Obama's 2011 State of the Union was the first such address this century that wasn't overwhelmed by war or financial collapse. It was the beginning of a new era, a return to business as usual. Indeed, it was a return to many of the issues that plagued the country in the 1990s: budget deficits, international competitiveness, the need to reinvent government, health care, education. In terms of content, it was a speech that could have been delivered by Bill Clinton. It wasn't exactly a barn burner, and its muted, non-confrontational message was reinforced by the integration of Democrats and Republicans in the House chamber, a seating arrangement that served to restrain the usual animal spirits.

    And yet, there was something new here: two years into his presidency, Obama has discovered the power of storytelling. I was always struck by how few anecdotes he told when he was running for President; his rhetoric was more about we than he or she , even though telling stories about actual people is one way politicians can demonstrate that they are actual people too, sort of. Ronald Reagan, who invented the tear-jerking hero sitting in the First Lady's box, was the master of this. But Obama's brilliant Tucson speech hinged on the character and dreams of a 9-year-old girl, on the human qualities of all the victims, and his State of the Union speech was a nonstop round of inspirational storytelling. The heroes of those stories were almost all entrepreneurs, an interesting choice for a Democrat; even the non-entrepreneurs — the principal who turned around a Denver school, the 55-year-old factory worker who was getting a degree in biotechnology — were entrepreneurial, taking charge of their lives and institutions.

    It was, in fact, amazing how conservative a speech it was. The three big goals — innovation, education and infrastructure — have been around since Henry Clay. Obama talked about them in a manner that George H.W. Bush might have employed. When he dealt with education, he eschewed the standard Democratic talking points about early-childhood programs like Head Start, which have become code words for spending more money on poor kids. Instead, he talked about accountability, which is code for breaking the stranglehold of teachers'-union work rules. When he talked about innovation, it was the small-business loan that a Michigan solar-power company received — or the creative, private-sector by-product of a perceived national security threat, the "Sputnik moment." When he talked about infrastructure, he insisted that "we'll make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment and pick projects based on what's best for the economy, not politicians." Even his effective defense of health care reform was anchored in promises to lift onerous regulations on small businesses and work for malpractice reform.

    Not much socialism there, and nothing for Republicans to grab on to and screech about. There was little substance or controversy of any sort. When the President says he's going to freeze domestic spending for five years, saving $400 billion, and uses a good chunk of the evening to talk about all the breaks he's going to give the business community, it becomes prohibitively difficult for Congressman Paul Ryan, offering the official Republican response, to argue that the country is wantonly heading down the tubes. And I found myself utterly amazed when Obama celebrated our gay members of the military.

    And that was the most remarkable thing about the speech: Obama completely reversed the American political calculus of the 1980s and '90s. He made the Democrats the party of optimism and the Republicans the party of root canal. Someone really should have told Ryan that there isn't much mileage in comparing the U.S. to Greece or Ireland; it's a false analogy, in any case. Indeed, the notion of the Republicans having, as their official spokesman, a guy who has proposed making serious cuts to Social Security and Medicare while privatizing both — positions that are opposed by 80% of the American people — is strong evidence that the GOP, in its post-election exuberance, has already lost touch with the public.

    By contrast, Obama's biggest applause line was about American exceptionalism: "As contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on earth." This came near the end of the speech — which is where great applause lines should come — and it was greeted by a visceral roar, and then followed by the story of yet another entrepreneur, the Pennsylvania drilling machinist who saved the Chilean miners. This was deft on so many grounds. It subtly addressed the Republican extremists who question Obama's patriotism, and it put him squarely — with Reagan — on the side of sunshine and enterprise. That is the winning side in American politics: you tell inspiring stories and sell soap bubbles.