President Barack Obama’s fifth State of the Union address last night was optimistic in tone, was modest in ambition, expressed a desire to work with Congress, yet acknowledged that the president would take whatever executive action he could if Congress doesn’t act. It also was a political speech without being too partisan -- it served as an organizing principle for his party ahead of the midterms, but was largely devoid of controversy (more on that below). The White House’s challenge now is to make sure last night’s State of the Union isn’t a one-day event. Today, President Obama gives a 10:25 am ET speech at a Costco in Lanham, MD, where he’ll talk about the importance of raising the minimum wage. Then he heads to West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, where he’ll give a 1:45 pm ET address on boosting retirement security. Tomorrow, Obama heads to Wisconsin and Tennessee. Follow-through has been a shortcoming of this administration -- it sometimes appears that it will set out to emphasize a message, but only drop it a week or two later. Much of that is due to all of the external (and unexpected) events a White House must confront. But last night’s speech will only be successful if it lives past today and tomorrow.
An agreeable speech -- which was still criticized by red-state Democrats
When it came to the issues, Obama’s State of the Union was agreeable in tone -- he laid out what he was for (on the economy, immigration, health care) but did so hoping that some Republicans could agree with him. It wasn’t confrontational. And not surprisingly, it tested well: According to CNN’s instant poll, 76% of viewers had a positive reaction to the speech (though the sample was made up of a disproportionate number of Democrats because those folks were more likely to watch the address). It also seemed designed to unite the Democratic Party ahead of this year’s upcoming midterm elections. Almost every issue he discussed was something that both Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Mark Pryor (D-AR) could agree on. That said, as Politico notes, red-state Democrats like Sens. Mark Begich (D-AK), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), and Pryor all issued critical statements of the speech. “While the President delivered a lot of sound bites that may sound good in a speech, we need to hear a clear plan and commitment to economic growth," Begich said. “Overall, I'm disappointed with the President's State of the Union address because he was heavy on rhetoric, but light on specifics about how we can move our country forward,” Pryor added. These statements, in fact, seemed written beforehand. Then again, that’s what happens when your approval rating is 43% and obviously lower than that in states like Alaska, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
“America has never come easy”
Last night’s speech also ended on an emotional -- and upbeat -- note when Obama recognized Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, who was almost killed in Afghanistan and continues to recuperate from a brain injury. “My fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy,” the president said. “Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble, we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged. But for more than 200 years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress.” That story could also apply to Obama himself: Nothing in his seven years on the national political stage (2007-2014) has come easy. The 2008 race for the Democratic nomination. Even that general election. The health-care law. The re-election campaign. And now the president’s current situation in which he finds himself bloodied and bruised after the botched health-care rollout. Perseverance is an important quality for any president. Bill Clinton was usually able to talk his way out of sticky situations. But Obama’s M.O. is to grind it out. That, more than anything else, was the message he wanted to send last night -- both he and the country are grinding it out.
The other Great Disconnect in American politics
One challenge for the White House to crack is what has become one of the more interesting disconnects in American politics -- an increasingly improving economy at a time when Americans are growing more pessimistic about the country’s direction. Think about it: The Dow is up more than 2,000 points since last year; the unemployment rate has dropped 1.2 percentage points; and consumer confidence is on the rise. See here:
Unemployment rateJan. 2013: 7.9%Now: 6.7%
Dow Jones AverageJan. 29, 2013: 13,910Now: 15,929
Consumer Confidence (per the Conference Board)Jan. 58.6 Now: 80.7
But then look at the numbers from our new NBC/WSJ poll compared with where they were last January:
Right directionJan. 2013: 35%Now: 28%
Obama approvalJan. 2013: 52%Now: 43%
Optimistic/satisfied about Obama’s remaining time in officeJan. 2013: 51%Now: 40%
In his speech last night, the president -- no longer fearful about overhyping the economic progress – made the case the economy is getting better. “The lowest unemployment rate in over five years,” he said. “A rebounding housing market. A manufacturing sector that’s adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s. More oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world -- the first time that’s happened in nearly 20 years.” The question for the White House is if the public truly begins to FEEL this progress in the coming months -- and also if the economy continues to IMPROVE.
On the GOP’s response
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) delivered the best official GOP response we’ve seen in the Obama Era. Of course, that’s a relatively low bar (just think of the Jindal and Rubio past responses). But hers was a simple speech, wasn’t that confrontational, and tried to get across the message that Republicans have empathy, too. Unfortunately for the GOP, Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) threatening a reporter for asking him a question doesn’t help on the empathy front. And the danger is that more people will be talking about that today instead of McMorris Rodgers’ response.
How will Democrats respond to a House immigration bill that omits a path to citizenship?
And finally, House Republicans hit their retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The big topic will be immigration. It appears Republicans are set on NOT providing a path to citizenship. The question is how Democrats -- and the Gang of Eight -- respond to this. Be sure to watch Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) talk about this issue and others on “Daily Rundown” this morning.