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First thoughts: An 'exceptional' speech

Obama’s “exceptional” speech… It was strongest at the beginning and end, but fell flat in the middle… Obama stresses the future over the past… Another take: It was a non-ideological speech that avoided details on the policy… CBS and CNN polls find that viewers reacted positively… Breaking down the GOP response… Why is Obama headed to Manitowoc, WI? Answer: It’s all about the Midwest… Obama’s speech there is at 1:00 pm ET… And Omaha mayor survives recall.

President Obama speaking at last night's State of the Union address.

*** An “exceptional” speech: President Obama’s State of the Union address last night wasn’t exceptional in the traditional sense; it won’t have the shelf life that his earlier Tucson speech had. But it was exceptional in this respect -- it was his rebuttal to some conservatives critics who have charged that Obama doesn’t believe in “American exceptionalism” (i.e., the view that this country is uniquely different from other nations). “We do big things,” he said at the end of the speech. “From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That’s how we win the future.” As NBC’s David Gregory put it, it was “a call to arms to reclaim American exceptionalism.” Going into the speech, we compared it to Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union and George W. Bush’s in 2003. But it was clear the president was trying to borrow a page from Reagan and his “shining city on a hill.” Said Obama last night: “The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice. And tonight, more than two centuries later, it is because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong."

*** The beginning, middle, and end: Obama’s strongest moments occurred at the beginning (when talking about the Giffords shooting and coming together) and the end (when he talked about America’s exceptional nature). But the middle was a bit flat. Part of that is the nature of State of the Union addresses, because they’re long and contain policy proposals and promises. (And while Team Obama stressed that the speech wouldn't be a laundry list, that's precisely what the middle was -- except the laundry list had less detail than usual.) But a big part of it had to do with the bipartisan seating arrangements and the somber tone in the wake of the Tucson shootings. Overall, the bipartisan seating made the speech more enjoyable to watch -- cutting out much of the grandstanding, with one side standing up and the other sitting on their hands -- but it also seemed to drain energy from the chamber. And most speakers, including Obama, usually thrive on the energy in the room or arena.

*** Future vs. past: Here’s another way to look at the speech: It was about the future vs. the past. Throughout it, Obama tried to seize the mantle of the future; after all, “Winning the Future” was the essential title of the address. “The future is ours to win,” he said. “But to get there, we can’t just stand still.” And by stressing the future, Obama made recent Republican actions -- like trying to repeal health care -- seem stuck in the past. “If you have ideas about how to improve this law by making care better or more affordable, I am eager to work with you,” he said. But: “[I]nstead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let’s fix what needs fixing and let’s move forward.”

*** The non-ideological speech: And consider this: Outside of defending the health-care law, the speech wasn’t ideological at all. It embraced both Democratic ideas (the importance of the social safety net and the DREAM Act, for example) and Republican ones (medical malpractice reform, corporate-tax reform). Another way to put: Obama’s conversation was aimed almost exclusively at the middle of the country. In most State of the Unions, a president throws bones to key constituency groups. But the bones he threw in this speech were very, very subtle; in fact, some progressives are grousing about lack of attention on this or lack of attention on that. As far as the policy, that was probably the weakest part of the night. How do you achieve getting 80% of America’s electricity from clean-energy sources? How else do you reduce the deficit besides freezing non-discretionary spending? How much will consolidating federal agencies save? The White House is surely saving those details for his upcoming budget.

*** How America viewed the speech: While some in the pundit class noted that the speech fell a bit flat, the instant polls have been positive for Team Obama. A CBS poll found that "91% of those who watched the speech approved of the proposals Mr. Obama put forth during his remarks. Only 9% disapproved." (Of course, there were probably more Obama supporters than opponents watching the speech, so a grain of salt here.) And per a CNN poll, a combined 84% had either a "very positive" reaction or a "somewhat positive" opinion to the speech.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) delivers the
Republican response following President Obama's State of the Union speech.

*** The GOP response: As far as Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) GOP response, it was a fine speech -- and certainly much better than Bobby Jindal’s from two years ago. If there’s criticism of his rebuttal, though, it’s this: The speech was gloomy, especially compared with Obama’s positive and forward-looking address. “We are at a moment, where if government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America’s best century will be considered our past century,” Ryan said. “This is a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.” This will ultimately be a challenge for the Republicans competing against Obama in 2012. How do you both criticize his policies and chart a new course, but also remain optimistic? Ryan has a fairly sunny nature, and he had a hard time looking optimistic. This is NOT going to be easy for the actual presidential field.

*** All about the Midwest: So why is President Obama -- fresh off his State of the Union address -- visiting Manitowoc, WI today? Just look at these numbers: Obama captured 53% of the vote in this county in the ‘08 general election, but Republicans Scott Walker (in the governor’s race) and Ron Johnson (in the Senate contest) won 60% and 58% there in ‘10. Or these numbers: In the new NBC/WSJ poll, Obama’s approval rating in the Midwest is 56%, up 18 points (!!!) since December. Put simply, 2012 will be all about the Midwest. It’s why the president is in Wisconsin today. It’s why Vice President Biden is in Indiana. And it’s one of the reasons why St. Louis is probably the front-runner for the 2012 Dem convention, even though Obama lost Missouri in ’08. There was no region of the country that was more important to Obama’s success in ’08 (both in the primaries and general) -- and no other region where Dems took a bigger shellacking in 2010 -- than the Midwest. By the way, last night's speech felt, well, "midwestern" in tone -- non-ideological, not overly dramatic; very much the Kansan part of the president's DNA.

*** Manitowoc Man: Obama delivers his speech today in Manitowoc at 1:00 pm ET, and he tours Wisconsin companies before and after the address. Meanwhile, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus (a Wisconsin native) and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) held a conference call at 8:30 am ET to pre-but Obama’s visit to the state.

*** Omaha mayor survives recall: Finally, the mayor of Omaha, Jim Suttles (D), survived his recall. Writes the Omaha World Herald: “Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle says he has gotten the message. Suttle narrowly survived a recall effort Tuesday, less than 20 months after taking office. Victorious but chastened, he said he plans to do a better job communicating with Omahans. Suttle said he wants to help bring the city together.”

Countdown Chicago’s mayoral election: 27 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 286 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 376 days

* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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