A contemporary State of the Union address is less an assessment of our national circumstances than it is a collective Rorschach test: an inkblot given meaning by the viewer more than by the subject. The televised pageantry of applause and ovations has little to do with the President’s articulation of a policy agenda and far more to do with how his partisan allies and opponents read the electoral viability of his phrases.
President Obama’s address on Wednesday night felt like a heightened version of this classic psychological evaluation. Reactions to it will tell us less about the President and more about the country and our willingness to embrace and tackle the difficulties that we face.
Obama loyalists saw a return of their favorite version of the President: relaxed, persuasive, rhetorically tough and clear. They cheered about student loan debt forgiveness and joined the President’s demand to pass a flawed but sweeping health care reform bill.
Cringing Leftists were disappointed by his deficit hawkishness, unconvinced by his promises to leave Iraq by the end of summer, and irritated by the brevity of his argument for repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
The GOP silence was deafening as Republicans refused to applaud tax reductions, small business investment, and budget balancing. No matter what Obama said, their inkblot test read "socialist."
In the night’s weirdest Rorschach display, MSNBC host Chris Matthews declared that the speech made him forget the President was black for an hour. Revealing, of course, that race wasn’t distant from Matthews’ mind, but rather that it was central to his assessment of the President.
The entire first year of the Obama presidency has been defined by a kind of national psychological angst. I have argued political opponents should not describe one another as "crazy," but it can be useful to think about how our collective psychological responses influence our politics. Barack Obama framed his candidacy in psychological terms, asking voters to reject fear and embrace hope. His campaign urged voters to project onto his candidacy their dreams for a more prosperous, peaceful and unified nation.
Last week’s assessments of President Obama’s first year in office reflected the deterioration of these hopeful projections to anxious ones. Observers on the Right insisted on seeing a free-market, centrist as a radical socialist. Commentators on the Left refused to notice the structural barriers limiting the President, and instead decried his lack of toughness and progressive commitment.
Both sides were laboring with the fundamental attribution error that causes people to overemphasize individual factors when explaining the behaviors and outcomes of others. Both sides rarely acknowledged the nearly determinate situational factors the President inherited: two ill-advised wars, a spiraling recession, a pre-existing bailout, an obstructionist opposition party, an ideologically fragmented Democratic majority, and a country with a constantly percolating racial anxiety. It was easier to blame the disposition, choices and preferences of Barack Obama than to admit to the messy difficulties of governing a complex, diverse nation that still labors with 18th century political institutions and 19th century socioeconomic predispositions.