You don’t tune into a SOTU address because you’re expecting the president to say fascinating things. The laundry list of presidential proposals is bound to be a little tedious. But it’s usually interesting to figure out which audience the president most wants to speak to. Is it the elected representatives seated before him, the elite opinion-makers preparing tomorrow’s commentary, the historians who will define his legacy in the distant future, the voters?
The most memorable things Obama said last night were addressed to people in the room: he told the Democratic majority in Congress that it should get ready to tackle “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; he told Republican Senators that they shouldn’t be so quick to filibuster everything the majority proposes; he told the majority of the justices on the Supreme Court that they shouldn’t have stuck their nose into campaign finance regulation. Sometimes Obama sounded tough, sometimes he was inspiring. But he was mostly trying to intimidate and inspire politicians by speaking their dialect.
Obama had remarkably little to say to ordinary voters. That’s strange. Over the last six months, culminating in the Massachusetts Senate election, most of the American people have repudiated ObamaCare. That has Democrats in Congress looking over their shoulder. You might have thought that the best way for Obama to buck them up and inspire a little fear among Republicans is by making a new and better healthcare reform pitch to the American people. Instead, he resorted last night to the same arguments he has been using without notable success for the last six months. That sounded to me like an admission of defeat.
Compare Obama’s approach to that of two of his Republican predecessors.
Ronald Reagan was famous for speaking over the head of the Washington establishment, directly to the American people. He never forgot that public opinion was a lever he could pull to make Democrats capitulate to his agenda. Nothing else could have induced the House to pass the Kemp-Roth tax cuts during Reagan’s first term when it was firmly under Democratic control.
When George W. Bush warned about the “axis of evil,” he was speaking the language not of official Washington, but of ordinary Americans traumatized by 9/11. That call to arms mobilized public opinion effectively enough to cow the majority of congressional Democrats into authorizing the Iraq war. It was an impressive feat of presidential persuasion even if the results were deplorable.
Imagine the message that Obama might have sent Republican Senators had he addressed them through, rather than over the heads of, the voters. Suppose he’d said something like this:
That’s not the sort of thing that today’s liberal politicians are inclined to say. They’re more comfortable speaking to each other.We Democrats promised during the campaign to enact comprehensive healthcare reform. You, the voters, elected us to do just that. We haven’t succeeded thus far because 41 Republican Senators are ready to filibuster our every attempt to make good on our campaign promises. That’s not fair. All I ask is that we Democrats get a chance to do the work we were sent to Washington to do. Then it will be up to you, the People, to judge us on the results. Republican senators won’t give us or the People that chance.