03/30/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The State of the Union Is... It Depends on How You See It

If last year President Obama had trouble pleasing anyone -- he frustrated Democrats and Independents by seeming to come down repeatedly on the side of big business over ordinary Americans, whether the issue was health care or lending, and frustrated Republicans by, well, being a Democrat -- in his State of the Union Address last night he finally got to please everyone. He was amiable, funny, and feisty -- the Barack Obama we all want to know and love.

For Democrats, the President put the Republicans on the spot a few times with some populist proposals (e.g., stricter regulations on Wall Street) that they could either applaud or sit on their hands while average Americans watched in consternation. He told the story of how Bill Clinton had left the country with an enormous surplus that the Republicans had spun into a trillion-dollar deficit, with two unfunded wars, two unfunded rounds of tax cuts, and a big Medicare expansion to be paid for by the Medicare class of 2070.

For Independents, he took jabs at the kind of partisan bickering that people in the center neither "get" nor want to get. He took a dig at his own party for squandering their huge majority by not doing enough with it (ignoring the fact, of course, that he was the squanderer-in-chief, who encouraged his fellow Democrats to grab the health care bull by the horns and pull it in opposite directions for nine months). And he took a dig or two at the GOP for demanding 60 votes for every piece of legislation (although, truth be told, the GOP had no trouble passing legislation with 55 seats in the Senate when George W. Bush was President) and had a little fun at their expense when they grudgingly refused to applaud for all the tax cuts he'd doled out over the last year.

For Republicans, the President spoke like one of them more often than not, reinforcing their ideological commitment to low taxes and fiscal restraint and even adopting much of John McCain's proposal to freeze discretionary spending for three years. Aside from having criticized that idea himself during the campaign, it was an odd position to take in the midst of a severe recession, when every economist to the left of Chicago believes fiscal "restraint" will cancel out many of the laudatory effects of the stimulus package he touted and the jobs program he encouraged the Senate to follow the House in enacting.

For the populists who are angry at the big banks for their reckless behavior that crashed the economy -- which is just about all of us (except the fellahs who are about to get some of their biggest bonuses ever) -- there was satisfaction in knowing that the President was proposing, if not a pox on all their houses, a tax on all their banks (unless, of course, it actually passes, and they pass it along to the rest of us in creative new fees).

For the shrinking American middle class, he offered tax credits for college education, tax credits for child care, and a little help starting a nest egg for retirement.

For the environmentalists, he spoke of investments in the new energies of the future and warned that America can either lead in the new energy revolution, like it has led every other technological revolution of the last century, or fall behind.

And for the environmentally challenged, he promised nuclear plants that will require multi-billion-dollar federal subsidies to build (okay, he didn't mention that part), more offshore drilling (probably not a great idea for a President who spoke a moment later about the clear scientific evidence for climate change, unless you don't mind oil rigs breaking up during Category 5 hurricanes), and "clean coal" that can be used to power the high-pressure hoses that will be necessary to wash off all the "clean pigs" that I suppose someone will similarly develop the technology for when they figure out how to clean out the lungs of all the clean coal-miners.

For the hawks, we have 30,000 more soldiers in Afghanistan, and for the doves our combat troops will be out of Iraq by August.

And finally, for the progressives, there were those brief, fleeting lines about finally ending don't-ask-don't-tell (which the public overwhelming supported ending last year but the President just couldn't seem either to ask or tell the Congress to enact), equal pay for equal work (for all those women out there who weren't happy with his bartering away abortion for whatever was left at the end of the day of health care reform), and fixing our broken immigration system (for those who still remembered that campaign promise).

Years ago, a group of scientists known as Gestalt psychologists argued that the way we interpret the parts of something depends on the way we interpret the whole. Every introductory psychology student remembers the classic image they used to illustrate the point -- an image that can be seen as two faces or a vase, depending on which way you look at it.

And in that sense, the President's speech was either a thing of beauty -- an extraordinary appeal to his fellow citizens to overcome their differences and join in common cause despite them ("there is no red America, there is no blue America") -- or a masterful performance by a master chameleon who restored the ability of Americans, at least for a fleeting moment, to see in him whatever and whoever they hope he is.

Originally published on

Editor's note: Drew Westen is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation." He has been a consultant or adviser to several Democratic candidates, nonprofit organizations and Fortune 500 companies, and informally advised Barack Obama's presidential campaign.