President Obama's State of the Union address (the prepared text is here) was a reminder both of what's attractive about him and what's infuriating about him.
Attractive: He can sound reasonable and bipartisan, and he can articulate the openness and upward mobility and freedom that make America great.
some countries don't have this problem. If the central government wants a railroad, they get a railroad – no matter how many homes are bulldozed. If they don't want a bad story in the newspaper, it doesn't get written.
And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.
We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try. We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything's possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.
That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight. That dream is why a working class kid from Scranton can stand behind me. That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father's Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth.
That last sentence had even Speaker Boehner, a Republican who isn't exactly the president's biggest fan, choking up.
Mr. Obama managed to make some fun of government bureaucracy: "the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they're in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."
He called for medical malpractice reform, eliminating the 1099 rules in ObamaCare, and tax simplification for both businesses and individuals. "Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation," he said. More: "because the American people deserve to know that special interests aren't larding up legislation with pet projects, both parties in Congress should know this: if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it."
Yet for all that, Mr. Obama at times seemed to not get it, to still be reading from the left-wing playbook that lost his party the House in the midterm elections. He sounded nearly Soviet in his pronouncement of goals — "a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015," "By 2035, 80% of American's electricity will come from clean energy sources," "doubling our exports by 2014." He was vicious — or at least, uncivil — in his demonization of vast, productive swathes of the American economy, denouncing oil as "yesterday's energy" and accusing the "health insurance industry" of "exploiting patients."
Mr. Obama even went so far as to try to tell young people what job to pursue: "to every young person listening tonight who's contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child – become a teacher. Your country needs you." I love teachers. My mother worked as a teacher, some of my close friends are teachers, and some of my teachers were formative figures in my life. But to make a blanket recommendation to "every young person" to become a teacher struck me as a little weird. If everyone becomes a teacher, who is going to pay the taxes to support the teachers? Doesn't the president want any of the young persons listening to become entrepreneurs, or cancer researchers, or artists, or musicians, or engineers, or any of the many other valuable and useful occupations that exist besides teachers?
As for Paul Ryan's Republican response, it had some nice soundbites — one about the risk of turning the social safety net into a too-comfortable hammock, another observing, "It's no coincidence that trust in government is at an all-time low as the size of government is at an all-time high." As a television presenter, though, Mr. Ryan is no Reagan. And the substance of his remarks reminded me of what I think I once heard George Will, back in the late 80s or early 90s, describe in political terms as the pre-Reagan Republican Party's dentist problem. The dentist tells you you are eating too much candy and you have cavities and are going to have to undergo painful drilling. No one likes to hear this. The Republicans, telling Americans, as Mr. Ryan did, "our debt is out of control," and if we're not careful we're going to end up like Greece or Ireland, risk turning their message into a pessimistic tale of American decline and the need for painful austerity measures. I don't think Mr. Ryan totally fell into this dentist trap — he had some language in there about how "limited government and free enterprise" lift people out of poverty — but to me Reagan's genius was not simply that he seemed authoritative and attractive on television, but that he was able to articulate not only the dark risks of a big-government approach but the promise, potential rewards, opportunity and growth of an alternative approach emphasizing freedom.
It's that hopeful vision that Mr. Obama's language — "That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight. That dream is why a working class kid from Scranton can stand behind me. That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father's Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth" — managed to capture. "Working class" rang slightly false, since those Americans not brought up in the Marxist tradition don't tend to break themselves up into classes, but Mr. Boehner and anyone else who swept the floor of a small business or a large one got the point about upward mobility and the American Dream. If the Republicans want to defeat Mr. Obama in 2012 they are going to have to tap into that positive, upward mobility, American Dream narrative as well as the debt-disaster-dentist nightmare.