Barack Obama's first State of the Union was not a particularly soaring or pretty speech. But it was really the model every future president should look to when composing their own.
There hasn't been a major change to the State of the Union since Lyndon Johnson moved it to prime time in 1965. The closest thing to a modern update we've had since then was when Reagan introduced the first "Lenny Skutnik" (it was, coincidentally, a man named Lenny Skutnik). And guess what: Barack Obama didn't introduce any of his Lenny Skutniks last night!
Some pundits will tell you that a) Barry is good at giving speeches and that was a good speech but good speeches don't matter and b) Barry needed to match the rhetorical heights of his campaign speeches and wow us with elevated language delivered passionately, but he didn't. Both of those are idiotic pundit responses that were drafted at 4 p.m. yesterday. (Looking at you, Larry Sabato!)
The president was petty and score-settling. He embarrassed his opponents to their faces. He was gunning for short-term political gain and not concerned with laying down a legacy. There's nothing in the speech that'll be taught in classes as a classic piece of presidential rhetoric.
The only tear-jerking line was the kid who donated his allowance to Haiti. He closed with the usual "American spirit rests in the hearts of dudes who wake up early to go work in our clean coal plants" bullshit but the speech was not about the indomitable American spirit, it was about how congress needs to stop making him look bad and put a fucking jobs bill on his fucking desk, and fuck you, too, Supreme Court.
Here's the brilliance of the jobs focus: an incoming president's first address to a joint session (his pseudo-SOTU) can be lofty and grand and all that bullshit. And it would've been insane for Obama to have hammered on job creation in that first address, because every economist in the nation knew we were going to shed a zillion jobs over the next year. Obviously the stimulus should've been larger, and a supplemental stimulus should've been passed last year when it became apparent that the one passed was not large enough, but from a purely political standpoint, to announce your job creation plan in the trough of a major recession is just setting yourself up to be blamed when the jobs continue doing what jobs do in a recession. To bring your Presidential focus back around to it now, when the worst is hopefully behind us, is a nice bit of maneuvering.
He actually focused on health care more than we expected him to, and while some were hoping he was going to explicitly say "I call on the House to pass the Senate Bill and I call on the Senate to amend their bill through reconciliation," that is actually the sort of thing he should save for his sessions with congressional leaders. Reminding the public that the bill will regulate the insurers and be deficit-neutral was way more helpful for the cause than explaining his plan to ram it through an unfriendly congress.
George W. Bush couldn't deliver an inspirational address to save his life, but his obsession with his legacy and his War Presidency-fetishizing staff kept giving him these grand addresses meant to go down as Historic Moments. Axis of Evil was supposed to Churchillian. As a punchline, it may have slightly more staying power than Bimbo Summit. Remember when we were going to put a man on Mars? That was supposed to inspire us! Instead it just confused us. (Wasn't a robot on Mars enough for us to worry about, especially with a war on?)
And there is a graveyard somewhere in SW DC filled with nothing but stupid grand inspirational announcements of new days in America and Fair Deals and New Societies from these lousy speeches.
Last night's speech is a much, much better model for presidents to follow: be informal and colloquial, come out swinging, don't be afraid to ad-lib, point out your successes, point out the other side's failures, and lay out a specific, short-term agenda.
(Remember when he made the entire Supreme Court look super awkward? That was awesome.)
(Also Mr. President you know we're on your side but there is still no such thing as clean coal.)