Standing before a dramatically different Congress than he did two years ago, a sober, greyer Barack Obama delivered a call for America to win the future in his State of the Union address last night.
Although based on a future vision, the speech was largely shorn of the soaring calls for transformation that characterized his historic presidential run in 2008. Instead, in a phrase that was reminiscent of former Mass. Gov Michael Dukakis’s White House quest, Obama spoke about the need for open and effective government.
As he had during the past two years, Vice President Joe Biden sat behind the president. The person next to him was different, though. Rather than barrier-breaking Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, the recently elected Speaker of the House, sat in the chair reserved for the nation’s elected official who is third in command.
Boehner’s presence was a reminder of the self described shellacking Obama said his party took in the November elections. While midterm losses are standard fare in midterm elections, the Republican gains led to their taking control of the House, picking up a number of governorships and making inroads in the Senate.
In order to enact the wide range of proposals he called for, Obama knows he must move beyond the bipartisan rhetoric on which he campaigned and the show of unity and absence of rancor that has filled Washington in the days following the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tuscon two short weeks ago.
To accomplish this challenging, if not insurmountable, task, Obama has to figure out a way to reach Republicans who for the first two years have been characterized by their implacable, reflexive and unwavering opposition to his proposals.
The MacArthur Award-winning developer of the concept of multiple intelligences focuses here on how people like politicians can work to change people’s understandings. He describes the process in groups ranging from individual families to whole societies.
Two of the key elements are making a successful argument about the need for change. Gardner writes approvingly about Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 campaign for Prime Minister in England that swept Jim Callaghan’s Labor Party from power, ending that party’s decades long rule. Obama displayed similar skills in his successful run for president, although it remains to be seen whether his case for a bipartisan effort to ensure the nation’s future will be as persuasive.
The second element Gardner discusses is presenting a change that is different from, but not a complete break with, what has come before. He notes that people have a limited threshold for a degree of change: ideas that go beyond that are likely to be rejected.
This could be an area where Obama struggles. While he emphasized the values of bipartisan cooperation, it’s difficult to see Republicans who so clearly have gained from their previous stance dropping their policy opposition and collaborating with a president who is already in the early stage of seeking re-election.
The devil, as always, will be in the details. There were signs of cooperation toward the end of the last session, and, again, that was when the Democrats held the majority in both houses. We will watch with interest what happens and the degree to which the show of national unity translates into specific policies.
What do you think will happen? Will Obama be able to change Republicans’ minds? Will Republicans work more closely with the President?