President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech left many commentators scratching their heads. In their view, Obama was admirably long on uplift but mysteriously short on specifics.
Obama spoke not to the lawmakers and dignitaries assembled in the Capitol building, nor to the analysts poised in broadcast studios or hunched before their computer keyboards.
Obama's real audience was the American people: the homebodies hunkered down in their living rooms, worried about their jobs or their lack of jobs, concerned about whether a punishingly bad economy will ever rebound, anxious that the American dream was a reality television show teetering on cancellation.
With this audience, Obama scored - just as he did when he held his nose and compromised with Republicans over renewing the Bush tax cuts, and just as he did when he preached healing and reconciliation in the days after the shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
American presidents play two roles. They are simultaneously chief of state and head of government. On Tuesday, Obama left his administrator's hat back at the White House. In this State of the Union, he was 100 percent a national leader.
As Obama plots his course for re-election in 2012, it appears that he is drawing heavily on the example of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick - just as Obama did in formulating his 2008 election strategy. The president appealed to America's latent optimism and can-do spirit, just as Patrick did in last year's gubernatorial campaign (the two share several campaign advisers).
"We are poised for progress," Obama said, pointing to a "Sputnik moment" from which America can unleash its great talents to attain new levels of innovation, education, competition, and industry.
This "winning the future" theme was hardly an obvious one for a president speaking amid staggering unemployment, stagnant wages, and enormous debt - problems that have proven more stubborn than Obama and his economic team ever conceived.
The obvious thing for the president to do, with unemployment in some states well over 10 percent, would be to demonstrate the degree to which he feels the nation's pain, and to produce a laundry list of measures to show how hard he's trying to make things better. But Obama did very little of either Tuesday night; there was no call for a second stimulus package, let alone any ambitious, New Deal–style public-works program.
Instead, he asked the American people to look ahead — far ahead, to a vision of nearly universal high-speed rail, clean-energy use, and college attendance. Rather than focusing on the woes of now, Obama challenged us to improve tomorrow, quoting Robert Kennedy: "The future is not a gift. It is an achievement."
That appeal to optimism is precisely what Patrick ran on last year - even as Democrats across the country lost by running negative campaigns, warning people that Republicans would make things even worse.
Obama himself crisscrossed the country - including a stop in Boston for Patrick — offering a less-than-uplifting case for voting for Democrats: that America is a busted-up car barely dragged from the ditch, and Republicans are likely to crash it again.
Contrast that with the rhetoric of Tuesday's speech, just three months later.