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State of the Union Media Verdict: Obama plays small ball with subdued speech

President Obama delivered a rousing finale with an emotional tribute to a soldier Tuesday night, but that followed a lengthy speech that received less than rave reviews.

With the sustained ovation for wounded veteran Cory Remsburg, Obama briefly united Congress and the television audience—even the snark on Twitter was silenced—but the overall media reaction ranged from respectful to tepid.

Obama signaled during the media buildup to the speech that he wouldn’t be making sweeping proposals, and as State of the Union rhetoric goes, “new ladders of opportunity” isn’t exactly the New Deal.

But the president faced two problems: a Congress that won’t pass most of his agenda and an anemic economy: “The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”

It was a restrained speech—“a set of concrete, practical proposals”--matching Obama’s reduced political circumstances after a rough political year.

“He can’t do many great things” without Congress, said CBS’s Bob Schieffer.

“Quite predictable,” The Hill’s A.B. Stoddard said on Fox. “He didn’t break a lot of new ground.”

NBC’s David Gregory saw “a feisty president who wants to campaign for his party” on the minimum wage and other issues.

“A rousing speech for people who like a lot of the agenda items,” said MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

But Fox’s Kirsten Powers said that “the speech was definitely oversold by the White House” and lacked a sense of “urgency.”

There were numerous comparisons to Bill Clinton. “He sounds like a president who realized he’s not going to get it down…and now he’s playing small ball,” said Charles Krauthammer.

Newspapers also offered subdued assessments. “This wasn’t the presidency Barack Obama had in mind after winning his historic election five years ago. But it is the one he believes he has left,” said the Washington Post.

The New York Times was slightly more upbeat: “After five years of fractious political combat, President Obama declared independence from Congress on Tuesday as he vowed to tackle economic disparity with a series of limited initiatives on jobs, wages and retirement that he will take without legislative approval.”

These addresses are generally all talk, but Obama gave his an extra kick by putting out word in the early morning that he would unilaterally raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to at least $10.10—this as he was about ask Congress to boost the wage floor for all workers. White House officials have been talking up such executive actions precisely because they expect so little from the Hill this year.

The one exception could be immigration, where the House GOP leadership will push a blueprint that gives those here illegally a path toward legal status but not citizenship, the New York Times reports. The president knows he can only muck up these tentative moves toward compromise, so he limited himself to a generic paragraph, urging both parties “to fix our broken immigration system” (and at least got a clap from John Boehner, “son of a barkeep,” sitting behind him.)

The president talked about pre-K and urged companies to hire the long-term unemployed. He sprinkled his remarks with the names of ordinary people (the owner of Punch Pizza in Minneapolis in his pitch for a higher minimum wage, a newly laid-off  mother of two in his push for extending unemployment benefits). And he touted the ObamaCare enrollment numbers and urged more people to sign up.

As for the broad theme of income inequality, Obama is playing to a divided nation. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 59 percent of Obama voters say the government should do more on that front, while 52 percent of Mitt Romney voters say the government should do nothing.

Now Obama hits the road and tries to build a wave of coverage that lasts through the weekend. On the agenda: A Friday interview with CNN's Jake Tapper.

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.