President Obama’s State of the Union address was widely regarded as a good if not earth shaking speech by the political chattering class. However Americans have gone wild for the President’s address, and have responded to it with a zest of favorability that was not expected. What happened? It appears that Obama’s message that the worst is behind us struck a chord with an American populace that has been battered with years of Republican gloom and doom.
President Obama’s speech was good, but it lacked the kind of signature moment that is often remembered by history. Except for the Sputnik reference, there were very few sound bytes in the address, but yet polling done by both CBS News and CNN revealed that the address was very popular with the American people. 84% of respondents in the CNN poll gave the SOTU a positive response, and the number was an even higher 91% in the CBS News poll. These kinds of numbers suggest a huge win for Obama, but how and more importantly why was his State of the Union so well received?
The answer to the how question, in my opinion, has a great deal to do with the changing climate in American politics. The tragedy in Tucson has changed the tone of what Americans want to hear from their political leaders. A majority of people may not believe that the rhetoric directly caused the assassination attempt of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, but none the less, they are tired of the rhetoric. Obama’s address was noticeably lacking in heated political rhetoric, and I have a hunch that the tone of his speech held a visceral appeal for many Americans.
The State of the Union felt like a continuation of the remarks that Obama gave at the Together We Stand memorial in Tucson. Those remarks were also very well received with the American people, so it isn’t a surprise that a State of the Union that maintained much of the same tone was well liked. Even before the tragic events of Tucson, President Obama’s popularity was already on the upswing after the Bush tax cut compromise, and Obama has seemingly had momentum going his way since the day after the 2010 midterm elections. In short, the political climate was right for the President to deliver a very popular SOTU.
Political circumstances may have combined to enable the how, but why this address was popular can be traced back to one key phrase that Obama uttered, “We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.” The worst is behind us. This is the message that the American people have been waiting to hear since the economy collapsed in 2008. Polling shows that they themselves believe that the worst is over, so now they are ready for some optimism, which is exactly what President Obama delivered.
Obama said, “The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can’t just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, “The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.” Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age. And now it’s our turn. We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future.”
Obama’s address was popular because it was the perfect marriage of man, moment, and message. Since 9/11, Americans have been battered by a relentless decade of gloom and doom. Everything from terrorism to war to natural disasters and finally an economic meltdown had combined to wear down the American collective psyche and leave us in a state of despair, but as David Meadvin wrote on the Political Wire, “The country is tired of doom and gloom, just as they’re tired of partisan gridlock. People are ready to feel good about the future again.”
President Obama offered a vision of the future that Americans can feel good about, so they embraced both this president and his vision. In contrast to Obama’s optimism, both Republican rebuttals by Rep. Paul Ryan and Rep. Michele Bachmann were heavy on the gloom and doom. The Dick Cheney model of dark prophecy has become the stock and trade of the GOP to the point where it seems like without their dire warnings of economic end times the Republicans would have very little to say about anything at all.
President Obama optimism for America appears to be hard wired into his DNA. It was his optimistic vision of what America could be that got him elected president in 2008, and as the early stages of 2011 unfold, this same optimism has led to a renewed love affair between Barack Obama and the American people. Gloom and doom has once again been replaced by optimism and the belief that a better future is on the way. In other words, America has reembraced Barack Obama.