President Obama's first State of the Union differed markedly from his other major speeches. Obama eschewed the flashier rhetoric of his inaugural and congressional address and avoided the biblical and literary allusions he favored in South Bend and Cairo.
However, in at least one respect, Obama remained true to form. In past speeches, Obama has sought to channel famous Americans ranging from Martin Luther King to Abraham Lincoln. Tonight, he tried for Ronald Reagan.
The three major themes of Obama's State of the Union were straight out of the Gipper's playbook: First, resolve in the face of adversity. Second, a folksy demeanor laced with jokes. Third, a persistent reminder that he took office amidst a sea of trouble.
President Obama's glance toward Reagan for inspiration is unsurprising. During the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama stated that he "admired" Reagan for changing the "trajectory" of American politics.
Here are the top ten lines from Obama's State of the Union which echoed the Great Communicator:
"[O]ne year later, the worst of the storm has passed."
While more dark days will come, things are getting better. In Gipper-speak, it will be morning in America soon.
"Again, we are tested. And again, we must answer history's call."
The phrase, "history's call," was a favorite of George W. Bush's. Presumably Obama did not plan to invoke Bush 43, but rather sought to convey that America would rise to the challenges before it, just as Reagan reaffirmed the nation's commitments during the Cold War.
"And if there's one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans, it's that we all hated the bank bailout. I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal."
This line seeks to out-flank the Tea-Partiers who helped elect Scott Brown. More importantly, this is one of many jokes of the speech, the most humor Obama has displayed to date. It's not "honey, I forgot to duck," (Reagan's famous post-assassination bon mot) but it's a comedic start. It's certainly more comedic than Obama's three predecessors.
"Let me repeat: we cut taxes."
Look for this to reemerge in the midterms elections. For those making under $250,000, Obama will argue that he lowered tax rates. The Club-for-Growth will no doubt note that this is no trickle-down-Laffer-worship, but tax cutting for the masses is the rhetoric of Ron.
"[B]y now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics."
Obama introduces a difficult subject area with an uncharacteristically humorous lead in. It's unlike Obama, but would have been a natural move for the Great Communicator.
"While we're at it, let's also eliminate all capital gains taxes on small business investment; and provide a tax incentive for all businesses, large and small, to invest in new plants and equipment."
Obama emphasizes tax cutting to promote business growth, particularly for small corporations. This sounds like the former governor of California, not just the ex-Senator from Illinois.
"Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. That was before I walked in the door."
Insert Jimmy for W, and this comment might as well have been from 1982.
"Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected."
While the four categories above make up a huge portion of the budget, stopping government expansion, at least in word, is decidedly Reagan-esque.
"Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don't. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will."
Reagan put it more pugnaciously, daring Congress to "Go ahead -- make my day."
"Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign corporations -- to spend without limit in our elections."
This is a bold move. I know of no instance where a President has so sharply criticized a decision of the Court directly to the Justices' faces. All the Justices, dissent and majority, managed to hold still (except possibly Justice Alito, at least according to some reports).
This was an unseemly tableau: the President criticizing, Congress applauding, and the Court sitting stiffly in the middle. It may go over well with the voters, but it wasn't classy. Reagan never went after the Court so overtly, but he did speak out against abortion and politicized the appellate judiciary in a way previously unseen.
In the end, for all of Reagan's rhetoric, he won in 1984 because the economy had improved. The same will be true for Obama, who is not just looking to the midterms. At the end of the day, talk is cheap; the proof will be in the pudding.