If there's one thing I came away with from Tuesday night's State of the Union address, it's that President Obama knew what he was doing. Whether he did it well I'll get to in a moment. But as he entered the House Chamber last night, pressing the flesh with our nation's most powerful and elite, the president understood his challenge. Above all else, he had to continue to rebuild his tattered image among America's Independent voters who had supported him in 2008 but moved strongly away during November's midterms.
Fresh from a bipartisan two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts and a moving speech in the wake of the tragedy in Tucson, his numbers were on the rise. He had stopped the bleeding. But could he begin to turn things around? Would this speech show Independents he was the post-partisan leader they elected, not just another ideologue promising one thing while doing another?
To measure his success, my firm worked with CNN to bring together 30 Americans from across the political spectrum, evenly split among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents to watch -- and give their opinions about -- the speech. Using Instant Response Dial technology, participants reacted to the president's speech on a second-by-second, word-by-word basis, providing a glimpse into their minds as they listened to the president lay out his vision for America's future.
For Democrats, general reaction ranged from somewhat to very positive. No big surprise. Despite widely reported restlessness in Mr. Obama's base, people typically react positively to State of the Unions delivered by a president from their own party. Republicans, on the whole, were of course less enthusiastic, giving the speech neutral to relatively positive responses, with only a few lines generating truly negative scores. But Independents, true to their stripes, were all over the place, frequently reacting more negatively than either party to what they didn't like and more positively to what they did. For them, this was not simply about policy. Nor was it simply about vision. Independents showed themselves to be the true skeptics of the system. Their message: show me why we should trust you again.
Below are the four things that stood out most during our group and what they mean for the president's ability to bring Independents back into the fold:
1. Rhetoric took a back seat to reality. Gone were the lofty tones and narrative arcs of the 2008 campaign. On nearly every instance where the president reached into his rhetorical quiver for profound historical references, nods to America's exceptionalism, or even the attempts to define his vision of "winning the future," Independents reacted negatively. In their view, they were fooled once by his smooth talk. They certainly won't be fooled again. However humdrum for the Democratic Party faithful, Independents wanted steak, not sizzle. So, when the president focused on policy specifics like making sure those with pre-existing medical conditions can get health insurance or putting a five-year freeze on domestic spending, Independents responded favorably. Simply put, when he addressed the nation as a doer rather than a talker, Independents signaled a willingness to give the president another chance.
2. "Bipartisan" is the Independent watchword. While Independents dismissed rhetorical flourishes as political spin, talk of working together, crossing the aisle, or any other metaphor for the two parties cooperating did extremely well. Here, Independents seem willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt. Almost on cue, Independents reacted positively at the mention of bipartisanship, so he was wise to fill this speech with examples of government doing what's best for the people, not just what's best for the party.3. Obama the Pragmocentrist. Much like President Clinton after the 1994 Republican Revolution, Obama swung decidedly to the center, both in tone and content. He was not only conciliatory, but made several outright concessions. This was, by any fair measure, a centrist speech meant to appease the broad middle while not offending the president's base or their Republican counterparts. And in that regard, it succeeded admirably. Specifically, when talking about healthcare reform, he started by focusing on the things everyone loves (i.e. no denials for pre-existing conditions, keeping kids on their parents' insurance until age 26, etc.) and then showed flexibility and a will to compromise by following that he was open to changing the bad parts so the nation could move forward. Given his tarnished reputation among Independents since he took office, this was a well-conceived approach to regaining their trust. 4. Iraq/Afghanistan FAIL. Independents abandoned the Republican Party in 2008 because they were deeply displeased with our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- not because they were in love with Barack Obama. To win the office, candidate Obama campaigned against the less-popular policies of his predecessor and promised to end those wars. He hasn't ended them and Independents grow very uncomfortable hearing him now speak about them in terms reminiscent of the previous administration. When he said "the war in Iraq is coming to an end," Independents heard was George W. Bush proclaiming "mission accomplished." Independents took a chance on Change in 2008 and anything the president says that contradicts that idea leaves them cold.
All in all, Independents gave the speech a passing grade, which in purely political terms can be seen as success. But the administration's expectations must remain realistic. After feeling burned, Independents are looking for more than what a good speech can deliver.
Independents this morning are not back on the president's team. But they are willing to listen -- and watch. If he wants to continue to earn back their trust and, more importantly, their votes, he's going to have to deliver. They're giving him a second chance to prove he's a post-partisan president truly interested in bringing America together and getting things fixed. But it's time to put his money where his mouth is. And he's got two years to show -- not tell -- the country he's serious.
Michael Maslansky, CEO of the research and language strategy firm maslansky luntz + partners, is author of "The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics."