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Like his speech after the shootings in Tucson, Obama's State of the Union Address struck a note of mature, calming leadership. But it was not nearly as good.
First and foremost, the President squandered the opportunity to call for sane gun control policies--renewing the Brady Bill, or at least cutting down on the power of the automatic weapons and the number of rounds a nut like Jared Loughner can fire into a crowd.
Contrast that with Bill Clinton's speech to a hostile Congress defending the Brady Bill in his 1995 State of the Union.
Obama's gestures toward a more peaceful, cooperative nation, where we don't just "sit together tonight" but "work together tomorrow" struck the right chord.
He got off some good quips and took the high road--especially when he plugged the DREAM Act and stood up for children of undocumented workers, and when he spoke out boldly for gay troops. He rushed right from the shining moment where he attacked anti-gay bigotry, however, to a call for ROTC to return to American campuses.
Good job opportunity for grads in the recession: gay military recruiter.
On the economy, Obama hit on the theme of competitiveness relentlessly. He barely mentioned the unemployed. But he did also plug investing in infrastructure, expanding access to health care. He did a nice job yanking the Republicans' chain on health care, inviting them to meet and talk about all their great ideas (preferably live, on TV, while they glower and grope around fruitlessly).
The competitiveness theme extended to education and "Race To The Top"--where sadly competitiveness means some kids win and some kids lose out in the American educational system. At least with "No Child Left Behind" the Bush Administration presented the same policies under the a phony title that made it sound like they meant to help all kids.
As the Media Consortium member Sam of GritTV pointed out on Twitter, Obama channeled Bush on Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was great when he talked about cutting out tax breaks for billionaires--and the cameras went right to Bernie Sanders--but it's a little late now.
Obama opened the door for Paul Ryan's response when he talked about the need to cut the deficit and offered a freeze on domestic spending, singling out public employees for particular pain.
And, of course, the Republicans took that anti-deficit talk and ran with it.
"Debt, debt, debt," was the theme of the official Republican response from Representative Paul Ryan Wisconsin.
And while the "flim flam man,"as Paul Krugman memorably named him, laid out his argument that cutting taxes and cutting spending will revive the economy, he probably did the Republicans some good, if only because he didn't look like either Bobby Jindal, who bombed so badly in his memorable SOTU response, or Michele Bachmann. Bachmann delivered her competing Tea Party response, complete with a powerpoint purporting to show that Obama's stimulus program actually caused the current recession, while staring off to the side of the camera.
The contrast between the Tea Partiers and Obama is the one upside to the moderate, reasonable-sounding compromise-seeking persona the President continually projects.
It is unmistakable who is the real leader of the country, trying as hard as he can to hold us together, and who is determined to drive us off a cliff.
That's on the level of rhetoric, anyway.
During the midterm elections, Obama was fond of comparing the Republicans to kids who took the family car and drove it into the ditch by squandering the surplus and creating the current economic crisis. Now, he would say in his punchline, they want the keys back.
On a policy level, Obama's penchant for compromise--on tax breaks for corporations and the rich, handouts for banks, free trade deals and deregulation and domestic spending cuts that will hamstring his own recovery--he seems ready to hand them the keys after all.
Progressives are going to have to fight like hell to snatch them back.
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter