It’s amazing that he can still pull it off. Whenever Obama seems to be in peril, whenever his supporters are panicked and despondent and approaching outright disillusionment, he gives a speech that suddenly makes things seem hopeful. He did it with the famous race speech during the campaign and with the health-care speech last September, and now somehow he’s done it again.
For Democrats, the last few weeks have been uniquely, historically dispiriting. It wasn’t just the loss of Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts, as horrific as that was. What really inspired despair, and a sense that perhaps the Democrats were as useless as the Naderites always claimed, was the pathetic, cringing response of the rest of the party to Scott Brown’s victory. Suddenly, with health-care reform on the cusp of passing, they were ready to abandon it. It was as if they agreed with today’s Republican Party that Democratic rule is merely a freakish aberration, soon to be replaced with inevitable conservative hegemony.
The White House was scarcely any better. Obama seemed hesitant to show leadership on its signature issue. The administration’s plan for a spending freeze was a craven bit of triangulation, enraging the left while failing, predictably, to mollify the right.
A single State of the Union is not enough to fix all this, but it was still amazingly invigorating. Unlike past Obama speeches, it wasn’t soaring or profound. But it was confident, more than a little angry, and a sign that the White House is ready to fight. “To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills,” he said.
At times, as with his sarcastic reference to climate-change deniers, he seemed almost to be taunting Republicans. He could have been clearer about the need for the House to pass the Senate health-care bill, but he nevertheless recommitted to getting reform finished. Last week it seemed doomed. Now it once again seems possible.
Then there were Obama’s heartening words about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are,” he promised.
There’s almost nothing else Obama could have done that would so thoroughly thrill his supporters while highlighting his opponents’ shameful bigotry. It’s as if the president finally understands that fierce political polarization is here to stay, and it’s his job to figure out how to use it.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.