He had a few different jobs to do from a few separate perspectives.
In the Eyes of the Left
He had to lay out his agenda in a definitive manner and avoid digressing from the party script. He had to concede little and give the Republicans much to mull over. He had to acknowledge the presence and potency of the new House majority, but suppress its voice to the best of his ability. He had to talk about guns — in light of Tucson — and talk about civility in light of the political climate. He had to promise to veto a healthcare repeal and vow to protect the middle class. He had to win over the “green” people, make education a priority, and address immigration reform. The list was endless. From the outset, the Democrats were not likely to be pleased.
From this perspective: B+
He covered most issues and did, in fact, present his agenda. Contrary to White House spin before the event, his speech was pretty partisan. It was sprinkled with a unifying tidbit here and there, which made it seem like somewhat “kumbaya”-esque. He neglected some key social issues (evidently for political purposes), but for the most part, his speech didn’t concede too much.
In the Eyes of the Right
Was there anything that the president could have said that would have pleased the right? Well, he could have said that he supports full gun-ownership rights and would be more than willing to sign a repeal of the healthcare bill. He could have said that taxes on the rich needed to be lower and that the issue of the declining quality of public education should take a backseat to more ‘important’ problems like regulation. He could have said that our two wars needed to be continually waged until every building in Baghdad and Khartoum is burned to the ground. In other words, to please the Republicans, he would have had to become a Republican.
From this perspective: D
He was partisan in one direction.
I haven’t seen a whole lot of coverage of this element of the speech but I thought that the way the chamber looked during the speech was fascinating. For example, because the members were so intermingled, even when Obama spoke a line that only Democrats stood or applauded for, it looked as though the entire House chamber rose.
I also found a somewhat disheartening irony in the appearance of the House chamber. For the sake of unifying around a common cause, each member of Congress (among others working on the Hill) wore a white and blue-striped ribbon on his or her lapel. This was intended to honor the victims of the shooting in Tucson and keep Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — who was shot in the head — in Congress’ thoughts.
Here’s the irony: each Democrat wore the ribbon on his or her left, each Republican on his or her right. Nice job, Congress.
Ostensibly, the SOTU was a call for unity. If ever there was a place where the idea of unity and cohesion could take precedence over partisan gridlock and resistance to compromise, it would not be Capitol Hill. And Barack Obama knows that, which is why he sugar-coated his speech with a bipartisan flare. But the agenda that he set out in his speech covered left-wing talking points. The vitriolic mood is going nowhere.