President Obama gave the performance of his presidency this week, in a 90-minute appearance which has energised the democratic base, wowed the commentariat, and will likely reshape the White House’s political strategy. And here’s the twist: it wasn’t the State of the Union.
The latter was well-executed. State of the Union speeches are a tough thing to pull off, and Wednesday’s effort was pretty good, but not stellar. It had real energy at times, especially the passage on healthcare. The overarching focus was jobs, and in this sense the message was targeted squarely at improving middle America’s shaky economic confidence, which drives the President’s low approval ratings and underpins the GOP’s chances in this year’s midterm elections. He got some important messages out there loud and clear: the stimulus is working; we’ve cut taxes, not raised them. It was also a pretty diverse speech — he had some overtures to moderates and Republicans, for example on nuclear power and tax cuts for small businesses. As a political instrument, it probably will turn out to have been effective, albeit quietly — this speech won’t have turned many people into Obama-ites, but it will have cut through some of the negative chatter out there about him and his administration. Solid, but no fireworks. The speech did its job.
The main event came on Friday. Obama had been invited to make an appearance at the House Republican retreat in Baltimore. He made a twenty-minute speech which was a bit run-of-the-mill. But what followed was deeply impressive. Obama took roughly an hour of policy questions from Republican congressmen. And the President, in answering, was extraordinary. He showed a deep and nuanced awareness of the issues, and a clear understanding of Republican proposals. He provided a strong critique of some of his opponents positions, but was also quick to note the areas on which he agreed or felt there was room for cooperation. He was combative and very effective in debate, but also made a point of being courteous. In short, he looked and sounded like a statesman, and this made the Republicans, too often using the session to peddle talking points, look like small politicians. The President came across as better informed, more intellectually agile, and less outwardly political than his questioners. It was a terrific performance.
Hopefully this will prove to be a teachable moment for the White House. This innovative format was perfect for the President, but it was the change in tone which made the difference. Too often in the first year of the administration, Obama was too far above the fray. This made him appear divorced from the low politics of partisan bile, which was a good thing, but it also prevented him from displaying the considerable skills of debate he possesses, and it left many of his opponents’ charges unanswered. Quite by mistake, the White House may have stumbled upon an excellent insight into how they should change their approach — the President should ditch the above-the-fray “Rose Garden strategy” (as one commentator dubbed it) which has perpetuated the perception of disconnection and aloofness, and get stuck in.
He can start by doing events identical to Friday’s every month, on TV, live. It would improve political discourse, and it would help him reconnect with the masses he’s in danger of losing. The Republicans will have to agree or be painted as running scared.