When President Obama was done with his “turn the page” speech, what seemed to resonate most with the pundits was his denunciation of cynicism—and his critique of the media.
We already knew what he was going to say last night on taxes and new programs, so the networks spent little time on that. But who expected him to channel his 2004 speech about moving beyond red and blue states, to decry the media’s focus on gotcha politics and gaffes, and to declare that “I still believe the cynics are wrong”?
NBC’s Chuck Todd quickly returned to reality, saying, “Does he have some sort of followup on breaking gridlock?”
ABC’s Jonathan Karl was surprised that Obama gave no nod to Mitch McConnell as the new majority leader: “There was no mention of the fact that he was walking into a very different chamber.”
Cokie Roberts, too, felt the rhetoric didn’t match the appeal: “This speech was all about a Democratic agenda, and not trying to get something done.”
Even Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former spokesman, said on MSNBC: “I don’t know that we’re going to change our politics over the next two years.”
Rachel Maddow lauded the president for directly taking on the question of whether he had let the country down. “For people who voted for him, and thought he could be transformative, that is the central question,” she said.
But Chris Matthews seemed to take Obama’s criticism personally: “I think he made a mistake about cable TV. There are a lot of people, our network especially, who hoped and shared his hope.”
On Fox, George Will said Obama was trying to come off as “Mr. Congenial,” “but he pledged four, count ’em, four vetoes.”
Juan Williams said he didn’t think the audience would warm to Obama’s “crowing mode,” but that his attack on “crazy politics” and call for worthy debates could strike a nerve.
In the runup to the State of the Union, there was one emerging theme in the media debate: Was the speech important or not? Was President Obama laying out serious proposals for the Republican Congress, or playing to his base, or just trying to box in Hillary?
That’s why Obama’s closing peroration drew an unusual level of attention: We weren’t expecting it.
The speech contained little substantive news, and that was by design. The White House decided to have the president give a series of speeches essentially previewing the SOTU, making a pitch for free community college, increased sick leave, federal mortgage aid and greater access to broadband.
Then administration officials leaked the centerpiece of the speech to the New York Times, Washington Post and other news outlets for stories published Sunday morning. They said Obama wants to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans and financial firms to finance a middle-class tax break.
One argument in favor of the administration’s strategy is that a president might propose six or eight initiatives in an hourlong speech, but only one or two really get covered, especially on television.
But the driving force this year is that no one expects Obama’s agenda to get very far now that Republicans control both houses of Congress. So this was not a speech aimed at those in the House chamber, it’s targeted at liberals and independents around the country. And if that’s the case, why not milk it for maximum publicity value by dribbling out the details?
The speech comes as Obama is reaping the benefits of a gradually improving economy. He’s up to a 46 percent approval rating in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, with a 49 percent positive rating on the economy—the highest since his first year in office.
And the Washington Post/ABC poll puts the president’s approval at 50 percent, and a 48-48 split on the economy.
What’s more, the 41 percent who say they see the economy in positive terms compares with just 27 percent who expressed that view in October.
Not that everything is rosy. In both surveys, a majority still believe the economy is not doing well. But as the Post says, “The 41 percent who say they see the economy in positive terms compares with just 27 percent who expressed that view in October.”
So what Obama was doing last night was declaring a tentative victory in the economic recovery and laying out a wish list to score points with the public—knowing full well the newly empowered Republicans won't play along.
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.