Obama State of the Union:Cool as the other side of the pillow

President Obama unveiled enough specific policy promises in his State of the Union speech tonight to give folks of every ideological stripe something to smile about: For the the liberal base, he promised to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” this year, reiterated his commitment to health-care reform (of some kind), and trumpeted his proposed fees on bailed-out banks. For conservatives, he advocated for eliminating the capital gains tax on business investments, a greater commitment to nuclear power, and even off-seas oil drilling. And for everyone: Jobs! Lots and lots of jobs!

But more important was the connection he tried to make to the nebulous masses that are frustrated, angry, and disappointed — not just the livid Tea Partiers, but the people in the middle who feel a general sense of dissatisfaction about the state of the country. The ones who voted Scott Brown into office. Whether it was simply acknowledging the suffering that still exists due to the recession (“I know the anxieties that are out there right now”), the disenchantment with government bickering and ineffectiveness (“No wonder there’s so much cynicism out there”), or disillusionment with the change Obama was supposed to have produced by now (“Right now, I know there are many Americans who aren’t sure if they still believe we can change — or at least, that I can deliver it.”), Obama wanted America to know that he’s heard them. And he gets it. In fact, he’s not happy either. “If there’s one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans,” he said, “It’s that we all hated the bank bailout. I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal.”

But — perhaps more for the political chattering classes than anyone else — he also seemed determined to show that he hasn’t been fazed by it all. That’s why he went up the podium tonight with a sense of self-confidence and levity. When he discussed health-care reform, he joked about how badly it’s damaged him. “By now it should be fairly obvious that I didn’t take on health care because it was good politics,” he said with a knowing smile. When Republicans didn’t clap after listing a slew of tax cuts, he quipped that he expected more applause. After proposing that he meet with Republican leadership on a regular basis, he added, looking in their direction, “I know you can’t wait.” A president on the brink of failure wouldn’t be so cool, would he?

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