In the wake of the Massachusetts results, there was a lot of chatter among conservative pundits about whether Barack Obama was even capable of executing a strong pivot to the center. Jay Cost was uncertain, Jim Geraghty was skeptical — and Jonathan Last, provocatively, argued that Obama was as likely to prove as stubborn about course corrections as George W. Bush.
For my part, I figured that a pivot to the center was the plan all along — or at least, that it became the plan once Obama’s poll numbers started to sag, and the chances of steamrolling the whole Democratic agenda through Congress in his first two years evaporated. As soon as health care passed, securing his legacy as the true heir of L.B.J. and F.D.R., I assumed that Obama would start channeling the post-1994 Bill Clinton, and spend the run-up to the 2010 midterms talking round-the-clock about jobs, the deficit, and the middle class. And I assumed that he’d be good at it. Not Clinton good, maybe, but impressive all the same. He’s too much of a pragmatist, in the end, and too savvy a politician not to be able to execute a centrist turn when the situation seems to call for it.
But this pivot, if that’s what the White House planned, was contingent on a health care victory. Instead, the legislation has entered a weird political limbo, and taken Obama’s presidency into limbo with it.
That was certainly the impression left by tonight’s State of the Union, which struck me as the speech of a President who doesn’t know what narrative he’s selling. The eloquence was there, but the tone veered wildly — now self-critical, now self-justifying; now scolding, now conciliatory — and so did the substance. At times Obama channeled Clinton, promising to slash the deficit, touting his tax cuts, and floating small-bore, middle class-friendly policy proposals: Child care tax credits, student loan reforms, etc. At times he gave us a taste of what a McCain administration would have been like, pledging spending freezes, championing nuclear power, and bashing earmarks. Then he went populist on the banks, and played the economic nationalist on exports and energy — and, if you listened closely, on campaign finance as well. And large swathes of speech struck exactly the same notes (“don’t blame us, blame Bush” chief among them) that the White House has been striking all year, to diminishing returns.
As for health care — well, I’m still not sure what to make of the health care section, which seemed too tepid if the White House is still hoping to pass the legislation as it is, and too combative if they want to explore a smaller and more bipartisan bill. Yesterday Ezra Klein suggested that the White House has acted confused and uncertain on health care because it is confused and uncertain. That was exactly the sense tonight’s speech left me with — and presidential uncertainty can’t be a good thing for the legislation’s prospects.
I don’t mean to be too hard on the president: All State of the Unions tend to sprawl, and some of the tonal and substantive dissonances I’m picking up on here are inevitable in a big, detailed, cover-the-waterfront kind of address. But if there was ever a night to tighten things up, to narrow the focus, and to figure out a few big things you want to stay and a couple of big impressions you want to leave, then this was it. I came into the S.O.U. with two major questions: How is the administration going to handle health care in the wake of Massachusetts, and what kind of leader is Obama going to become if he has to govern amid a Republican resurgence? The President said a lot of things tonight, but he didn’t really answer either one of them.