A Triumphantly Unmemorable Address

Obama’s speech shows he is a man newly aware of his limitations. Tunku Varadarajan on why that’s a good thing.

01.25.11 11:59 PM ET

I’ve just watched the 14th State of the Union address since I first came to live in America in May 1997. And as I prop my eyelids open with matchsticks in order to write this piece, I am convinced that this has been the most boring address of them all.  (At one point, my son actually leaned over to me on the sofa and said firmly in my ear, “Dad, wake up…”)  

Yet in truth, even though its voltage was so darn low, this wasn’t the worst presidential speech (by Obama or anyone else) that I’ve heard, by any stretch: A blessed relief it was, at some level, that Obama didn’t seek to soar with every phrase, or to bind us in a spell of words. This was the speech of a chastened, post-rhetorical president—in some ways a weary president. It was certainly the speech of a president wiser than the one who delivered last year’s State of the Union.  

Of course, there were flashes of the Obama we know so well and find so tedious: Inevitably, he sought to demonize the oil industry; inevitably, he waffled at great length about “clean” energy and the like. And he came perilously close to repeating the old teachers’ union canard that the reason America’s children have fallen behind in their education is that we don’t, somehow, respect our teachers enough.  

Obama is a man now aware of his limitations—aware of the limitations of the method (and of the theater) that brought him to power. This is a good thing for him, and it is a good thing for America. He is now, it seems, a man who will listen to his opponents, and to those many Americans who do not share his vision and his broader ideology. The last elections chastened him, and it is a great relief to us all that he is a man capable of being chastened.  

In this healthy chastening, in fact, lie the seeds of any political recovery Obama might make in time for 2012. His address showed that he has the gift of humility, and his dullness was, in fact, proof of that new humility. Obama resisted the urge to strut, tonight choosing instead to speak to his fellow citizens in a plain, unfussy way, aware of the pitfalls that lie in the path of a president who strives always to be memorable.  

Sometimes, to be unmemorable is to be adroit; and tonight, Obama was deeply unmemorable—and very adroit.

State of the Union 2011

Tunku Varadarajan is the editor of Newsweek International. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution. (Follow him on Twitter here.)