Winning the Future: State of the Union reflects new political reality for POTUS

Coming on the heels of his rousing speech in Tucson, Ariz., after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, President Barack Obama delivered a nuanced State of the Union Tuesday, emphasizing job creation and reassuring Americans the “future is ours to win.”

As he called for new investments in education and the nation’s infrastructure, Obama elevated his rhetoric by striking a civil, moderate tone that will define his presidency for the next two years. The president appeared willing to lower corporate taxes and make changes to health care as long as Republicans ensure funding for education and green energy.

“What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow,” Obama said.

No matter where someone falls on the political spectrum, they have to admit the speech was one of the least partisan in recent memory. Rather than the annual pep rally so many have come to expect, Obama pinned the Republicans in a tight corner by selling popular conservative positions as his own and refraining from divisive issues like gun control and the war in Afghanistan.

Though slightly vague like most State of the Unions, the speech provided a narrative for economic recovery — something his health care reform effort lacked. Obama spun an inspirational yarn about American ingenuity that will help sell his domestic agenda.

“We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future,” Obama said.

Although comparing the State of the Union to the Tucson speech is like comparing apples to oranges, Giffords’ absence loomed over the Capitol Tuesday. Much was made of the decision by many members of Congress to sit with a colleague from across the aisle as a sign of solidarity. This sounded like a harmless gimmick, but it actually influenced Obama’s ability to connect with the crowd. The mixed seating chart sucked the energy out of the room. As seen in the Tucson speech, Obama feeds off the audience’s energy. Without the cued applause from his party, many of Obama’s strongest words fell flat. The address was clearly far better on paper than in delivery.

In Obama’s canon of speeches, Tuesday’s address does not rank as his finest. The speech lacked the verbal flare customary in his oratory and seemed to lag in the second half as he addressed the deficit. And coming so close on top of his Tucson speech, his professorial lecturing style seemed to emerge at times. Fortunately, he tossed out the laundry-list approach adopted by so many presidents and instead weaved together a stirring tapestry of calls for political reconciliation, innovation and progress to remind Americans they still live in the greatest nation on Earth.

After the speech, the double-barrel shotgun blast of rebuttals from Republican Reps. Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann proved to be more effective than many thought it would be. Rather than giving the impression of a divided Republican Party, the speeches reinforced each other. Ryan myopically focused on the deficit but positioned himself as a legitimate party leader, while Bachman catered to the wing-nut fringe.

Obama’s austere words will surely fade in the days to come as Washington gets to work, but for a few brief moments on Tuesday the nation witnessed its future. It will be fraught with challenges and sacrifices, hopes and dreams, setbacks and successes, but the state of the union will remain strong and the nation will endure.

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