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.
In Wednesday's State of the Union, President Obama attempted to break through this psychological angst with a speech meant to remind Americans of the situational constraints he faces; to shift the emotional tenor from despair back to optimism; and to ask voters and Congressional members to use common sense and rational approaches to policy making.
President Obama reminded Americans that the spectacular economic crisis began under the previous administration, not with him.
At the beginning of the last decade, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. By the time I took office, we had a one year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. 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.
As he has done exquisitely since the campaign, the President then contextualized these difficulties within a broader historical sweep. The American story, Obama continues to insist, is replete with examples of gritty determination overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
It's tempting to look back on these moments and assume that our progress was inevitable – that America was always destined to succeed. But when the Union was turned back at Bull Run and the Allies first landed at Omaha Beach, victory was very much in doubt. When the market crashed on Black Tuesday and civil rights marchers were beaten on Bloody Sunday, the future was anything but certain. These were times that tested the courage of our convictions, and the strength of our union. And despite all our divisions and disagreements; our hesitations and our fears; America prevailed because we chose to move forward as one nation, and one people.
But in this speech, President Obama refused to simply shift responsibility or to rely exclusively on faith in American progress; he also took on the role of civics professor. He explained how the recent Supreme Court decision threatens American politics. He provided a brief lesson in budgeting. And he explained the dangers of governing with short-term responsiveness to volatile public opinion rather than long-term commitment to collective responsibility.
We cannot wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about their opponent – a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants should not be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual Senators. Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, is just part of the game. But it is precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it is sowing further division among our citizens and further distrust in our government.
This address seemed to disrupt predictable responses. Oddly, as President Obama built to a black church-like crescendo in the last few paragraphs, the Congressional chamber fell eerily silent. It was as though everyone was holding their breath and collectively readjusting the lens through which they viewed this President.
Like tilting your head to view the inkblot from a different angle can suddenly make a new image appear, really listening to the President last night can make the country's future seem much different than it did before. Whether the new vision is reassuring or frightening is largely our own projection.