President Obama is ending the no drama phase of his presidency. Ever since his pallid performance against Mitt Romney in the first debate, Obama has been reinventing himself. Last night he emerged as the liberal president that has always been suppressed under his careful carapace of cool and calm. Taking a leaf from George W. Bush, Obama went on the offensive. He ended his speech with a fervent plea for gun control—a moralistic rather than policy-wonk ending that allowed him to claim the moral high ground. The only thing that threatened to overshadow his speech was the spectacle of Christopher J. Dorner engaged in a shootout in a cabin in California with the police.
Despite the nuclear test in North Korea—an ominous move that could portend real trouble for the administration in its second term—Obama treated foreign affairs almost as an afterthought, which, given the tenor of the Senate hearings on Chuck Hagel's nomination, in which Texas Sen. Ted Cruz made the odious suggestion that Hagel may have received tens of millions from North Korea and is, in effect, a communist fellow traveler, Obama might be pardoned for not wanting to tackle. But problems and threats are mounting abroad. But Obama made it clear that his focus will be on domestic policy. Troops are coming home from Afghanistan. No new wars are in the offing.
Obama staked out a firmly progressive program on guns, schools, climate change, and, above all, jobs. For those who proclaimed that he took a prolonged detour in enacting health-care during his first term, Obama made it clear that he's going to focus on employment in his second. And the deficit? Not so much. "Most Americans," he said, "understand that we can't just cut our way to prosperity. They know that broad-based economic growth requires a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue." The line coming from the White House will be that economic growth commands priority over cutting entitlement benefits. The unpleasant task of trimming, or even slashing, benefits for the elderly—something that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans really want to tackle—will be a problem for Obama's successor, whoever he or she may be.
Judging by Sen. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul's responses to Obama last night, it won't be either of them. At least if they don't become more polished. Rubio made waves not for what he said, but for his lunge for a water bottle during his response. Rand Paul always looks a little unkempt. Why the GOP, which proclaimed that it was going to speak with one voice, needed two to answer Obama is somewhat mysterious. But infighting among the Republicans is what Obama will rely upon to pass as much of his program as he can squeak through a fractured Congress. The complaint that Obama is promoting "big government" is too vague; the GOP would have to enunicate a program of what it envisions as reviving an economy that remains very much on the artificial life support being supplied by the Federal Reserve. The GOP's boldest move to counter Obama seems to have been to invite the rock star Ted Nugent who once advised him to "suck on my machine gun." But such inflammatory rhetoric was nowhere in evidence as the GOP tries to mount its new charm offensive with voters. It's dropped the searing language and becoming rather goody two-shoes. Senator Mike Johanns told the New York Times: "Good people will show that we're a governing party. You win elections because people believe you can make a difference."
Which is what Obama was trying to demonstrate last night. His new persona is winning him plaudits among liberals. David Corn, for example, observed,
With this address, he didn't hold back. And if he only succeeds in placing this nation on the road to universal preschool, that in itself would be a historic accomplishment of fundamental consequence. With this address—which seemed to bore House Speaker John Boehner—the president was not trying to win over recalcitrant Republicans and nudge them toward the compromises they have by and large eschewed. He was trying to lead.
For all Obama's rhetorical skills on Tuesday night, however, he will be judged not by his efforts on gun control or expanding preschools, but on his ability to improve the economy. If the unemployment rate falls significantly and if inflation remains low and the stock market continues to rise, the rest will follow. If they don't, he could still go down as a very unpopular president.