State of the Union addresses are often a wash; the one Obama delivered this week was a watershed. The evening produced two visions, one hopeful, the other infused with fear; one delivered from high ground, the other emerging from a low bog of grievance, gloom, and doom. The events of the coming months and the direction of the 2012 campaign will be shaped by the terrain that each camp has claimed.
In his speech, the President, who for his first two years was the great legislator, was, as he had been in 2008 and again in Tucson, the great communicator. He articulated a powerful narrative, rooted in America's instinctive view of itself as a nation and a people who "do big things." The call to "win the future" was aspirational and challenging, an appeal beyond partisanship that echoed JFK and Ronald Reagan. The Kennedy comparisons were inevitable; but there was also a striking parallel with Reagan's summons in his first inaugural to "believe in ourselves and in our capacity to perform great deeds... And, after all, why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans."
Obama elided the usual list of policies in favor of a compelling and coherent message: We can win the future. We can be first in innovation, first in education, first in technology, first in building the real and virtual pathways to a 21st century economy — and so first in high skilled, high paid job creation. He answered the anxieties of a country fearful that it was standing still or in decline. He crystallized the way to think and talk about the central project of his presidency — and he made it America's defining purpose in this time of change. The polls registered a remarkable response: 83 percent of those who watched the speech viewed in favorably in a CBS News poll. In a Republican-leaning focus group conducted by the Democracy Corps, Obama's job approval soared by 26 points and his focus on the future resonated across the board.
The American people get it. The Republicans don't. In their downbeat responses, the official one and the Tea Party artifact, Representative Paul Ryan and his Palindrone colleague Michele Bachmann in effect renounced Reagan's optimism and darkly warned that the country's best days may be behind us. Ryan, who yearns to eviscerate Social Security and Medicare, did not dare to speak his specific ideas for the deficit reduction he ritually invoked. Instead, in a thin and somber voice, he intoned the threat that "America's best century will be considered our past century." Now there's something to rally around — a malaise-like message more Jimmy Carter than Reagan.
Then there was Bachmann who lives in an unparallel universe where facts are fungible things. Bachmann blithely attributed George W. Bush's last deficit to Barack Obama — and falsely claimed that his economic recovery package "spiked" unemployment to 9.4 percent. Bachmann was mouthing a favored myth of the tea drinkers. But could we expect better from someone who a week before had averred that "America's founders worked tirelessly until slavery was no more"?
From the thoughtful side of the conservative dispensation, my colleague David Frum rebuked Obama's State of the Union with an attack on "Obama's doomed green jobs plan." With free-market dogmatism, Frum anathematizes public investment in projects like high-speed rail and electric cars; he ignores the now centuries-old role of government in modernizing transportation — from the Erie Canal to the transcontinental railroad to the interstate highway system.
Frum does have other, worthy ideas about what conservatives might say, but they aren't saying it. In sum and substance, the GOP's approach is an anti-government, anti-New Deal, job-annihilating return to root canal economics. Republicans would cut fast and furiously. But what they don't offer is any positive alternative to Obama's vision or anything other than defunding the building blocks of the future from education to research and development.
Optimism wins in American politics: You don't get anywhere by saying what America can't do. And on Tuesday night, Obama succeeded in casting public endeavor as American purpose.
That same day brought new proof that the demand to ask what we can't do is not just bad politics, but bad economics. Figures released just hours before the President spoke showed that the British economy has been driven into negative growth by precisely the kind of conservative retrenchment that the GOP demands.
The Republicans would not so secretly welcome a downturn, assuming that they could blame it on Obama and use it as a path in their own White House restoration. That's why the battles ahead, which may be more civil, will be profoundly consequential. Obama's advantage is that he's speaking to the next generation and, even as he denies it, to the next election. The GOP is still playing out the now defunct 2010 politics of negation, incrimination, and reaction just as we are moving toward very different circumstances and a far wider electorate in 2012.
It's been a short time and a long way from November to January. The President is calling America to the future. His opponents are stuck in the past.