NPR logo The State Of Obama's Union: Is Realism The New Hope?

The State Of Obama's Union: Is Realism The New Hope?

If you tuned in at certain points in President Obama's State of the Union address last night, you might have seen and heard a chastened chief executive sounding downbeat.

It was clearly an impression the president wanted to convey, within limits.

Nearing the end of his 70-minute address, the president spoke of "so much cynicism out there ... so much disappointment."

A moment later he added: "I campaigned on the promise of change — change we can believe in, the slogan went. Right now, I know, there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change — or at least that I can deliver it."

That's pretty much telling it like it is. Independents have begun to wonder what they saw in the slender freshman senator from Illinois. Hard-core liberals, union activists and Democratic partisans have questioned whether their champion had the stomach for the fight.

Addressing the misgivings of the former group was sure to add to those of the latter.

One year into his improbable presidency, Obama seemed to acknowledge all that as he stood, cool and loose, before a House chamber filled with politicians who seemed far less relaxed. The Democrats looked sour much of the time, even while applauding. The Republicans seemed to be attending under duress, their Senate leader, Mitch McConnell so impassive as to appear embalmed.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff sat in uniform, following their usual code of stony passivity. They did not applaud even when the commander in chief was praising the military. Nearby, most of the Supreme Court sat enrobed in their own uniform, implacable in their own way (except for Samuel Alito, who could be seen shaking his head and mouthing "That's not right" when the president criticized their decision to allow direct corporate spending on campaigns).

The president himself was by turns defiant and self-deprecating. And as he neared his conclusion, he seemed almost to be reaching for a kind of bottom, a low point from which he his party might rebound after three months of almost unbroken bad news.

"I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone," the president said.

No, but much of the nation seemed to believe a year ago that change was coming — big change — and the new president was going to be able to make it happen. It was change that some embraced and others feared and loathed. But things were going to be different. More different than they have turned out to be.

But moments after bringing the room down, the president was building to a conclusion with an entirely different tone.

"We have finished a difficult year," he said, sliding into the cadence of the pulpit. "We have come through a difficult decade. But a new year has come. A new decade stretches before us. We don't quit. I don't quit. Let's seize this moment to start anew, to carry the dream forward and to strengthen our union once more."

It was another of his signature finishes, emotional and full of confidence. And it allowed the president to leave the joint session on a high note, clutching the hands of well-wishers and smiling on his way out the door.

The president gave a long speech, most of which had clearly been amassed well before the recent reversal of fortune in Massachusetts that cost the Democrats their 60-vote majority in the Senate. Historians will debate whether the months of 60 votes, a majority big enough to defeat a filibuster, were a blessing for the Democrats or a curse.

One thing is clear: It was when the majority reached 60 that the minority stopped negotiating, hunkered down and began opposing everything of significance, forcing the majority to assemble its full 60 on a routine basis. It proved more than the party could do without making ugly and highly visible deals. The very strength of the majority became a perfect foil for Republicans everywhere, including candidates for Congress in 2010.

When running for president in 2008, Obama could run against the presidency of George W. Bush, the prospect of Hillary Clinton, the Republican Party, the war in Iraq, the recession and the Wall Street meltdown. But after a year in office, he and his own party have become the party of power and therefore the party of the nation's problems. They own the wars and the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the recession and the unemployed. They own the deficit, even if most of it was in the pipeline before Obama took the oath of office.

That is the way perception works in politics, and it has nothing to do with fairness.

So last night, Obama tried to recover some of the foils he ran against two years ago. He pointed again to all the ills he inherited. He may be right, but this argument loses force with every passing month. Once again, that is how perception works.

And so the president tried to establish a new benchmark as of this State of the Union speech. If he can fix this point in the national imagination as a low point, he might be able to portray it later as a turning point.

If so, the tough talk and soul-searching of last night could be a backdrop for better days ahead. Realism could be for Obama's next act what hope was for his last.