One feels obliged to wonder why a speech that was advertised as one of the most important of President Barack Obama's term — the speech where he would define the shape of his next two years in office in order to win another four — came off so flat and uninspiring. We suspect it was because the president was so carefully working to position himself as the man in the middle on every issue, the leader who stands above party and politics, the mediator, the master of splitting the difference. This is not President Obama's natural role, and he did not seem to feel comfortable with it.
For better or worse, the president is a man with convictions about the role of government — and for the first three-quarters of the speech he expressed some of them, although guardedly. Government must encourage innovation (or, presumably, it will not happen) improve education (although increasing federal involvement has coincided with declining test scores) and rebuild the nation's infrastructure. In short, government programs are the engines that drive the economy and societal progress.
That seems close to what this president really thinks, but, especially considering the election results in November, he's swimming against the tide of public opinion. Americans are concerned about a jobless economic recovery, they are worried about the long-term harm of public debt and deficits, and, although they are fuzzy and inconsistent about the details, they think government should be getting smaller, not larger.
Strangely, the president hardly acknowledged the concern about jobs that aren't coming back. His problem, of course, is that the best way to jump-start job creation is to reduce the burden of government, institute real regulatory reform and place a moratorium on new regulations, not just establish a panel to look at a few examples of overbearing regulation.
The speech was not without its moments, expressing a vision of a more competitive America and calling on our history to remind us just how resilient and capable Americans are when given opportunity and freedom.
To be successful, however, this speech would have had to acknowledge the deep uncertainty that Americans still feel — despite modest signs of economic growth — about a slow recovery that hasn't put a significant dent in unemployment.
Sadly, those elements were missing.