It was a very good, and very painful, speech. Very good because Barack Obama recaptured the spirit that animated his presidential campaign. In the campaign, he took progressive ideology and made it seem like nonpartisan, nonthreatening common sense—just as Reagan had done with conservative ideology a generation earlier. In his State of the Union speech, he did that again. First, he made himself look nonpartisan and nonideological by embracing a number of pet conservative ideas: from capital-gains tax cuts to nuclear power to offshore drilling. Second, he spoke earnestly about bringing the nation together across party lines, as he did in the 2004 Democratic convention speech that launched his national political career. But thirdly—and here’s the key—he used this bipartisan imagery to sell fundamentally progressive ideas. This was particularly true in his discussion of job creation and financial oversight. As he did during his debates his John McCain, he made it sound reckless and wild-eyed not to increase government spending and regulation.
Paradoxically, because Obama never comes across as angry, he’s quite an effective populist. His calm, reassuring manner leavens his populism, and prevents it from seeming too divisive and dangerous. He made his assault on the banks seem like nonideological, more-in-sadness-than-in-anger, common sense. And as a result, he began the two debates he wanted to begin—over financial regulation and a jobs bill—in a very effective way.
That was the good part. The painful part was that by so effectively beginning a new conversation about jobs and financial oversight, he subtly acknowledged that he has lost the old ones: over health care and cap and trade. He didn’t even explain what cap and trade is, let alone take on the Republican objections to it. And while he discussed health care in greater detail, his decision to leave that discussion until so late in the speech spoke volumes. What’s more, his discussion of why reform is necessary was less than compelling. While he offered a laundry list of problems with the current system, he didn’t encapsulate the case for his version of reform in a simple, memorable way. And this may have been his last chance.
When historians look back at this speech, they may say it was the beginning of Barack Obama’s political comeback. And they may also say it was the night that he quietly buried some of his and his party’s grandest hopes for what this era of American history could be. “The dream shall never die,” we liberals like to say, but today—far more than a year ago—it seems like just that, a dream.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is an associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.