In the Arena

The State of the Union (and the Presidency)

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I have a new print column, which TIME subscribers can find here, about Barack Obama’s rousing and very effective State of the Union message. It was effective in three ways–as a policy response to the Republicans running for President, as a spiritual response to the Republican insinuations that he was not quite American and as a response to those in the media, like me, who have occasionally questioned his aloofness and zest for battle. Let’s take them one by one:

Policy: The President responded to many of the strongest arguments made by the Republican candidates on the trail, especially those that pertained to excessive regulation. He sounded like Mitt Romney when he called for a single job training website to replace the welter of ineffective programs that we have now (and he sounded like Newt Gingrich when he called for more job training programs linking prospective employers and community colleges). He sounded like Gingrich again when he called for an “all of the above” program to make America energy independent, and announced that he would open 75% of the offshore oil and gas fields for development. And he sounded like all of the Republican candidates when he talked about the need to rescind silly federal regulations like the one that could require dairy farmers to spend $10,000 ┬áto contain a milk spill.

(PHOTOS: Obama’s State of the Union in Pictures)

But Obama linked that to the need to remain vigilant about oil spills, like the one that paralyzed the Gulf of Mexico last year. And he also called for the elimination of tax breaks for oil companies, whose profits are historically monumental right now. Indeed, the President stood his ground on higher taxes for the rich–but he did so in a way that was sort of Republican, proposing a “Buffett rule” that would set a minimum 30% tax on million-dollar earners by eliminating many of their loopholes and deductions (a similar plan was proposed by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels in his official response to Obama’s speech).

Spirit: The most disgraceful aspect of the Republican campaign so far has been the constant insinuations that Barack Obama is something less than an American. Gingrich has said he wanted to run an “American” campaign in the general election, as if Obama would run something other than that. Romney has castigated the President for favoring a “European-style welfare state,” a rather ironic assertion in that in a former life he favored all the “European style” programs Obama has proposed–especially universal health care. The former Rick Perry flat out called Obama a “socialist.” And on Monday, Rick Santorum refused to correct a woman who called the President “an avowed Muslim.”

(MORE: 30 Years of Skutniks: A Brief History of Special Guests at the State of the Union)

The President’s response to all of this was elegant: the Navy SEALs. It wasn’t merely that the SEALs had, on his orders, taken out Osama bin Laden…and, in the hours before the State of the Union, rescued two aid workers held hostage in Somalia. The SEALs were the very best special operators in the world because of their ethos of total teamwork, which Obama held up as a profoundly American model. He closed the speech with a brilliant peroration about the flag the SEALs who’d gotten bin Laden had given him, the stars and stripes stitched together, the flag signed by all the team members. He posited an alternative American vision to the Republicans’ Darwinian libertarianism–a vision inherent in the document the Tea Party has incorrectly apotheosized, the Constitution, whose original purpose was as a stitching device, promoting union and controlling the wayward states, while also–yes–giving the states some freedom to maneuver.

There was no way to think Barack Obama was anything other than a red-blooded, All-American guy after the speech was done. (Even the commentators on Fox, especially Charles Krauthammer, were cowed by the speech.)

Style: he’s getting less lofty, more conversational, more colloquial. He may have been taking some lessons from Newt Gingrich’s debate style. The crucial line in the speech–that anyone who believes that America is in decline, “doesn’t know what they’re talking about”–was pure assertive Gingrich, without the sneer. He also seemed more in touch with the lives of average folks–the blue-collar worker who was able to get a high-tech factory job because of a course she took at her local community college; the fellow who lost his job and found a new one making wind turbines; Warren Buffett’s secretary, who paid more in taxes than Mitt Romney.

(MORE: An Optimistic President Talks to a Pessimistic Nation)

In an interview with Fareed Zakaria last week, the President posited that the press saw him as aloof because he didn’t go to Washington parties and hang out with all the usual suspects. This was nonsense, of course. Obama’s aloofness is something of a mystery to me. When I’ve met with him over the past seven years, he’s been personable, informal, funny, unaffected, without any of the pomposity that settles upon most Presidents–and yes, extremely intelligent. The problem is, these qualities haven’t translated at all in a public way. There’s been a quality of abstraction about his dealings with the public, an inability to explain his policies and purposes in a way they can comprehend, an inability to convey the sense that he understands their struggles.

I don’t expect him to ever be the weepy hyper-hugger that Bill Clinton was. But, as he proved in the State of the Union, he can do a lot better when it comes to communicating with average folks. And make no mistake, this is one lucky President–he’s far more natural and at ease than Mitt Romney (and he pays a more American rate of taxes), and smart enough to make Gingrich seem a nasty bully (if Newt can survive what’s becoming a difficult week in Florida).

Despite a difficult economy, this presidential race seems the President’s to lose.

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