Commentary: Obama Goes Unplugged in State of the Union

Keith Boykin offers up analysis of the president's speech.

If President Obama had to summarize his hour-long State of the Union speech into one sentence, it would sound like this: "I got this."

Throughout his speech Tuesday night, the president reminded Republicans in Congress that he had made difficult and often controversial decisions in his six years in office that turned out to be right in the end.

On the economy, the president argued that his policies had led to growing prosperity instead of the gloom and doom predicted by Republicans. "At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits," he said.

Instead, the president responded, "We’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years."

On foreign policy, the president recited the popular Republican narrative last winter that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a genius and Obama was a naive student. "Some suggested that Mr. Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength," the president reminded them. "Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters," he said.

Then he added the most important line. "That’s how America leads  —  not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve."

And that is also the story of how Barack Obama leads.

Ever since his first presidential campaign nearly collapsed over his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama has been accused by supporters and critics alike of being slow to respond to crises and controversies. They call him professorial or deliberative. He's known as "No drama Obama."

The president hasn't changed his style, but since the midterms last November, he has become bolder in his message and his actions, on issues ranging from immigration to Cuba to climate change and a host of other topics. He even conducted his end-of-the-year press conference last month without calling on a single male reporter.

Tuesday's night speech continued that bold new pattern. On every issue he discussed, the president showed a man who is comfortable in his skin and confident in his approach to governance. Every issue, that is, except one.

When the president speaks about race, he still does so from a point of defensiveness and goes out of his way to present both sides of the issue, as if to demonstrate the depth of his understanding and to contradict critics who presume a certain bias. He used this technique in his State of the Union when he spoke, indirectly, about police brutality and the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

"We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York," the president said. "But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed."

That line by itself would have been constructive. But then came the other side, as the president also expressed his understanding of "the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift."

From there, Obama, to his credit, turned two seemingly conflicting viewpoints into a common call for reform. Citing falling crime rates and incarceration rates, the president said Republicans and Democrats could use that information as a "starting point" to reform America’s criminal justice system "so that it protects and serves us all."

Compare the president's delicate dance on police brutality to the forceful way he addressed the issue of voting rights as a core American value. "Surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred; that it’s being denied to too many; and that, on this 50th anniversary of the great march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to make voting easier for every single American," he argued.

In a perfect world, both parties could agree on protecting the right to vote, but that's not our world and Republicans will not be deterred by a single speech. "I have no more campaigns to run," the president said, causing a few GOP members of Congress to clap cheerfully. Obama smiled, quietly acknowledged the giddiness from their side of the aisle, and then couldn't resist goading them with a seemingly unscripted line about the true source of their glee.

"I know," he said, "because I won both of them." Then Democrats rose to their feet in applause.

If only they had been so courageous last year.
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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