In the Arena

State of the Union

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It was a terrific performance. He almost seemed to be having fun up there; he delivered the speech in a free, almost informal manner. It was easily digestible, user-friendly…but it was also a fighting speech. Certainly, he stuck the needle time and again into the hides of the recalcitrant elephants in the room. It started early in the speech when he recounted the numerous tax cuts that had been passed in the past year as part of his much-distorted Stimulus Plan, to applause from Democrats and silence from Republicans, and he ad-libbed, staring at the Republican side of the room, “I thought I’d get some applause on that one.”

Again and again, he challenged the opposition. He challenged them to come up with good ideas on health care. He challenged them to join in the leadership of the country, now that they had 41 Senate votes and insisted on a 60-vote super-majority to pass any bill. Even a lapidary line like, “Now let’s clear a few things up…” was barbed, since it referred to the shameless distortions that the Republican Party–and its house demagogues on Fox News–had inflicted on the health care reform process.

At the same time, he made a series of proposals that Republicans should love–like a new generation of nuclear power and judicious offshore drilling, like a capital gains tax holiday for small businesses, free-trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Korea. We’ll see if they’re willing to take yes for an answer.

That said, the substance of the speech wasn’t spectacular. The new proposals were modest. The freeze on discretionary spending, starting in 2011, still seems ill-advised. He was vague on when and how health care reform might be passed. The section on foreign policy seemed less than perfunctory.

But in the end–the very end–the eloquence and sense of purpose was riveting. The President described, as accurately as I’ve seen it done, the cynicism sapping the Republic–which also was a tacit attack on the Republicans in the room. He admitted that he’d had a tough year, had made mistakes…but he remained resolute.”I won’t quit,” he said. He encouraged the Congress not to quit, not to run away from the tough decisions, either–if previous Congresses had done that 50, 100, 200 years ago, “We wouldn’t be here.”

This was Obama at his best. He wasn’t cuddly, but who cares? He was smart and he was funny–and he was drop-dead serious about the country. The speech should do him some good, but it’s not enough. Now he has to preside, in the true sense of the term. He can’t let himself get caught up in the tawdy doings of the Congress. He has to stand above the muck, leading, jawboning a sense of responsibility–as he did tonight.