The state of the union speech has a specific and particular role in the American polity's calendar. Masquerading as an event of political import, it is, in fact, a much-trailed setpiece of mediated theatre in which the entire political class pledges itself to eternal optimism: America's endlessly renewable resource. Somewhere in the speech, regardless of how much of a mess the country is in, the president will insist, to roaring applause from both sides of the aisle: "The state of the union is strong." It is one occasion when the president is supposed to embody the resilience of national will over material fact.
Within those parameters, Barack Obama's state of the union address was a success. Depending on who was polling, between 83% and 90% of Americans said they approved. He took a clear stand on things he believes in, like gay soldiers serving openly in the military, a pathway to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants and the future removal of tax cuts for the most wealthy.
He also reached over the aisle, proposing a spending freeze on discretionary domestic spending and a desire to reduce the deficit. Given his predecessor's abilities, the oratory was impressive. While he didn't feel anybody's pain, he briefly recognised that it exists. Pointing to globalisation's challenges he said: "The rules have changed."
However, he failed to lay out a plan or even a vision as to how America might play this new game. With the soaring rhetoric and lofty ideals of his campaign now a distant memory, he instead peddled the hackneyed notion that America's answer lay in its own innate and unique brilliance. Innovation, creativity, reinvention: things no one would argue with, no one can measure, and no president can do much about.
In many ways for this particular piece of theatre, the immediate audience was more important than the performer. In November, the Democrats suffered the biggest swing against a governing party since 1948. Those who sat before him on Tuesday night were the product of the most polarised political culture for decades. In a less hostile environment in 2009, he was branded a "liar". Obama felt the need to show he could work with those he disagreed.
But much has changed since the Democrats' "shellacking" in November. Democrats first disappointed their base by caving on their promise to raise taxes on the top 2% of earners – only then to rally the faithful with "don't ask don't tell" and a missile treaty with Russia. When events in Tucson sent the nation in search of adult conversation and compassionate leadership, he was there and the Republicans were not.
While most of his speech made sense for those in the chamber, it provided few meaningful signposts for the world outside, which is where he will ultimately be judged in two years' time. While Obama was clinging to the former glory of the space race, Americans are grappling with more earthly matters. With unemployment still threatening double digits the issue of how he intends to get people back to work and keep them in their homes should have been at the centre of his speech. During his first year in power, poverty rates climbed by more than any year since records began, yet no mention of the poor. House repossessions keep climbing, but no mention of foreclosures. He clung tightly to the American dream of children doing better than their parents even as social mobility ossifies. He praised wars that have been lost and the nation no longer supports. He claimed the nation had "broken the back of the recession" but in truth the recession is still crippling the country.
This was not so much hope you can believe in, but pain you can sustain and mythology you continue to cling to. It worked for the night, but it won't work for the country.
• Gary Younge is a New York-based columnist for the Guardian
"We do big things," President Obama said at the end of his address, a serious, business-oriented speech that managed to be simultaneously vague and carefully calibrated to win the magical centre that American politics are supposedly all about.
He honoured Gabby Giffords and avoided uttering the word "gun". He called for cutting corporate taxes and eliminating tax breaks for oil companies, for a five-year freeze on domestic spending and preserving social security. There was uplifting language about out-educating, out-innovating and out-competing the rest of the world, with shoutouts to Google and Facebook (Facebook – has it really come to this?), clean-energy research and 55-year-old Kathy Proctor of North Carolina, who lost her job in the furniture business and is getting a degree in biotech.
Healthcare reform? It's a done deal, but let's hear your ideas for improving it. Iraq and Afghanistan? Thanks, they're going well.
It was a very presidential speech, in other words – uplifting, a bit dull, flattering the national vanity. (Do other world leaders claim their nation is unique because working-class children can succeed?) It had one funny joke, about salmon – tellingly, it was aimed at government bureaucracy. Obama showed himself in full leadership mode, and that is probably good for him.
At the same time, for me, it was haunted by what was left out: unemployment (still almost 10%), foreclosures, rising poverty and persistent racial disparities, Guantánamo, racially biased drug wars that have given the US the highest per capita rate of imprisonment in the world, violence and discrimination against women, manmade global warming, shredded social services, and, yes, all those guns.
• Katha Pollitt is a columnist for the Nation magazine
After the 2010 midterm elections, there was reason to doubt Barack Obama would be as effective at "triangulating" – that is, moving to the centre – as Bill Clinton was after the 1994 midterms. Clinton had spent the better part of 16 years governing in Arkansas, a fairly conservative state. He had gone through the experience of being rebuked by the voters for being ideologically out of step before, when he lost the governorship to a Republican during the 1980 Reagan landslide.
Obama didn't have any of this experience, and though he was as ambitious as Clinton, he also seemed more ideological. Obama's tacit promise to the Democratic party's progressive base was that he would be the transformational president Clinton wasn't, rather than the accommodating president Clinton actually was. When Obama first tried his hand at playing nice with congressional Republicans with the tax cut compromise, his displeasure at dealing with the GOP was obvious.
Yet Obama is slowly emitting signs that he understands how to triangulate, after all. In this state of the union address, he tried to demonstrate that he could be constructive, nonpartisan and fiscally responsible. Coming on the heels of his Tucson speech, it was exactly the right tone – a change voters already seem to be rewarding with improved approval ratings.
Whether Obama can continue this is anyone's guess. He has always been able to be remarkably fairminded about national controversies, except when he is personally enmeshed in them. That's why the healthcare portion of his speech had the most partisan tinge. But politically, he needs to continue to try to drive a wedge between the independents and Tea Party conservatives who voted Republican last fall. For the former, bipartisanship is usually a good thing; for the latter, it is an epithet.
Paul Ryan, the new House budget committee chairman, did a better job of grasping the country's fiscal realities in his effective Republican response. Obama's federal spending freeze (locking in his own spending increases) and inconsequential earmarks ban are just gimmicks – though, admittedly, gimmickry frequently favoured by Republicans.
Obama remains the master when it comes to unifying rhetoric. But to use a perhaps uncivil metaphor, the devil is in the details.
• James Antle is associate editor of the American Spectator
It was a good speech, but hardly a great one. Obama sometimes seemed curiously flat in his delivery – except in his unusually robust defence of healthcare. But it was certainly not a convincing "Sputnik moment" speech.
There were nice turns of phrase and some frank analysis of where America's greatest problems lie. But it was woefully short on practical policies to take on those challenges: making more solar panels is not going to cut it. A "Sputnik moment" needs massive government effort. Yet Obama, in a bid to move to the right and co-opt the Republicans' cutting agenda, is proposing federal spending freezes and huge slashes of the budget.
But then, this speech was not about policy. It was about politics. More specifically, it was about winning a second term. To that end, it served Obama's purpose: poetic language laced with folksy charm, embrace of centre-right policies and an ignoring of the left (in the knowledge that progressives have nowhere else to go).
For me, the most significant event of the night was the fact that conservative Congresswoman Michele Bachmann was able to give a nationally broadcast – via CNN – response, on behalf of a Tea Party group. It would have been interesting if an organisation had emerged on the left to be a progressive equivalent. But none has. Without that, Obama's speech was always going to be a policy-light pitch rightwards to win back the independent swing voters that focus groups and professional pundits prize so highly. In that regard, he delivered and set the tone for what we will see on the campaign trail until November 2012.
• Paul Harris is the Observer's correspondent in New York
This speech was about vision, leadership, and next year's presidential
election. It scored well on all three fronts. Obama was both stark and optimistic. He told Americans something they may not want to hear: that a country that has dominated the world for so long now risks being overtaken by China and other rising powers.
But Obama said America's fate was in its own hands. Through increased investment in education, research and innovation, the US could reassert its global primacy. He was confident it would prevail. While calling for increased bipartisanship, Obama threw down the gauntlet to Republicans. He dared them to follow his lead in confronting America's problems, rather than try to obstruct him. Significantly he made no apology for his landmark healthcare reforms.
Republicans' calls for deep spending cuts to reduce the budget deficit they created during the Bush administration are unlikely to carry broad electoral appeal. Thus the Republicans are in danger of offering a programme of pain compared with Obama's manifesto of hope.
The speech will add momentum to Obama's recent resurgence in the opinion polls. It positions him as a national rather than a sectional leader. It showed he has a clear vision of America's path forward. And his message, in hard times, was one of infinite possibility, unity and positive endeavour. The Republicans in contrast were implicitly painted as mean, divisive, negative – and leaderless. As the 2012 race gets under starters' orders, for the GOP that's a losing proposition.
Last night Obama looked like a winner again. It was his Apollo 13 moment.
• Simon Tisdall is an assistant editor of the Guardian and a foreign affairs columnist
Ah, Sputnik – the Soviet satellite that inspired a half century of American speechwriters. Team Obama, in particular, has a thing for the Sputnik; it has been popping up in speeches by administration officials for two years.
So much for the bold spirit of American innovation the metaphor was intended to conjure. Despite Obama's appeal to a Sputnik challenge, there was little new, or even particularly brave, in the president's ideas tonight – especially on the environment. After the Republican midterm election gains, Obama did not dare utter the words climate change or global warming – in contrast to his earlier state of the union speeches, when he directly called on Congress to pass cap-and-trade legislation.
There was no reference either to the Environmental Protection Agency, now under attack from Republicans, which remains the Obama administration's most effective instrument in protecting the environment. The BP oil disaster in the Gulf also went unmentioned. Instead, the theme was clean energy, which the White House believes is a more palatable way – palatable to Republicans and conservative Democrats – of dealing with issues of energy and climate change.
The president was also pretty elastic with his definition of clean energy – including nuclear, natural gas, and clean coal. Other ideas were familiar: Obama was urging an end to oil subsidies – worth about $3bn a year – back at the 2009 G20 summit in Pittsburgh.
On those proposals that were genuinely new – like getting 80% of American electricity from clean energy sources by 2035 – Obama offered no clear path to its achievement. That idea, at least, recalls the spirit of Sputnik – in the sense of being sent off into permanent orbit.
• Suzanne Goldenberg is the Guardian's US environment correspondent
Did the earth move? Not for me. After Obama's soaring rhetoric in Arizona a second barnburner was an awfully big ask. Besides, State of the Union speeches hardly ever go down in the annals of American rhetoric.
The president's proposals were reasonable, often admirable, and in a country where partisan debate bowed to the urgent demands of the current crisis it would have been a fine speech. But the United States, my country, is not that country. To the Republicans who blocked every proposal during his first two years, and who even now are pledged to repeal his health care bill and destroy his presidency, he offered to "make American the best place to do business in the world. We need to take responsibility for our deficit."
Lowering the corporate tax rate is apparently a big priority – just as the fact that "the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up" are cause for celebration. No mention of the millions of jobless, or of a government that can give tax breaks to millionaires but can't put its people to work. I know it's unfashionable, but I miss the Obama who campaigned hard, who fought back hard.
A wise man once said "Politics ain't beanbag" – something Obama should have learned in Chicago. Judging by last night, he hasn't learned it yet.
• DD Guttenplan is London correspondent for the Nation magazine