Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
The best part of the State of the Union was when President Obama took it to the Republicans.
The most ringing line came at the end, when Obama acknowledged the victims of gun violence and their family members in the audience and said, repeatedly, "they deserve a vote," on gun control, until the whole chamber rose to its feet and applauded.
Gun control, closing tax loopholes for the rich, emphasizing job growth instead of deficit reduction through austerity, and supporting immigration reform were among the no-brainers for a majority of Americans the President hit on in his speech.
Even protecting voting rights is controversial with Republicans in Congress. But they know they are out of step (in fact, that's why curtailing voting rights is their goal).
It was fun to watch Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and John Boehner squirm when Obama talked about increasing the minimum wage, enforcing pay equity, and renewing the Violence Against Women Act.
The long section on climate change was also encouraging.
The devil is in the details, though. The President mentioned the last, failed effort to pass comprehensive climate change legislation -- a process that was hopelessly undermined when his Administration rolled over for the fossil fuel industry, as detailed in a classic account by the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza.
The whole battle over so-called sequestration is opaque. The Republicans have lately tried to tie Obama to the drastic across-the-board cuts he denounced in his speech, repeatedly calling it "the Obama sequestration."
That effort seems doomed, since most Americans don't know what the word sequestration means.
The President hit the core issues -- growth versus austerity, rebuilding our infrastructure, making higher education attainable -- and won.
Obama's nod to Reagan's now mainstream denunciation of "big government" -- which is no longer considered such a bad idea by young college students confronting a life of debt peonage -- is ominous.
So is his pledge to ask for more sacrifice, and more bipartisan compromise.
After the speech, the Republicans pushed forward their most palatable public face -- Marco Rubio -- to give their party's response.
Rubio is their best shot at appealing to the Latino voters they so resoundingly alienated in the last election.
Blaming Obamacare and "big government" for the recession, Rubio stuck to the usual talking points.
He expressed Republican rage at the party's marginalization.
"He accuses us of leaving the poor and the elderly to fend for themselves," Rubio said of Obama.
The President says "that we only care about rich people ... Mr. President I still live in the same working class neighborhood where I grew up," Rubio said.
"I don't oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plan because I want to protect my neighbors."
It was the best response the Republicans could make. But it lacked new ideas or substance.
Rubio agreeing with the President on low corporate tax rates and some sort of immigration reform did not bode well.
The Republicans are still wandering in the wilderness. Let's hope Obama leaves them there.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Republican Jobs Nonsense".
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter.