WASHINGTON -- The most revealing congressional reaction following President Obama's State of the Union address came from Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina: "He sort of took us to the principal's office, didn't he?"
And not just Congress, but all of us. The nation's principal was calm but firm. Democrats were scolded for their resemblance to frightened rabbits. Republicans were reprimanded for obstructionism and betraying their responsibility to govern. Washington was rebuked for its partisanship and pettiness. The Supreme Court was taken to task for favoring special interests. The American people were praised for their resilience, and gently chided for their cynicism and misunderstanding of policy. Everyone was left with a pat on the head, a lesson or a detention.
From the text of the speech itself, it was difficult to discern an ideology -- not because of its moderation but because of its contradictions. The president took credit for the stimulus package, demanded another one -- and called for budget restraint. After a year of delaying other legislative priorities in his single-minded pursuit of health reform, Obama challenged Congress on fiscal reform and other matters: "How long should we wait?" Obama attributed the hated bank bailout to his predecessor -- then insisted it had saved the economy, which he chalked up to his own everlasting credit. There were policy proposals along the whole ideological rainbow: tax increases and tax cuts, new spending and a budget freeze, cap-and-trade and oil exploration.
These tensions were reflected in the president's tone. He showed Reagan-like optimism about America's future, and Carter-like worry about America's "deficit of trust" and "deep and corrosive doubts." He urged our politics to get beyond "the same tired battles," while repeatedly returning to those battles in his self-excusing blame of the past. He "will not give up on trying to change the tone of our politics," while making liberal use of partisan sarcasm.
There was only one theme that united all these various arguments and attitudes -- the president's unshakable self-regard. He admits miscalculations, but he is never wrong. He changes his strategy, but not his mind. On health reform: "I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people." If only Obama had made a few more speeches, Americans would have been delivered from their misconceptions. Even Obama's apologies are unapologetic. He is like the job candidate discussing his flaws during an interview: "I have to admit, I work too hard. I'm too detail-oriented."
As should be obvious, I find this attitude grating. I'll take my share of the blame for reacting harshly to politicians who treat citizens as misguided children. Others find Obama's manner mature and reassuring -- convinced the nation needs both president and principal.
I'll also admit that in some important areas Obama is right. He has outlined a reasonable compromise on energy policy: promoting nuclear power, expanding oil and gas exploration and moving toward a cap-and-trade system that helps take America beyond a carbon economy. It is an approach that would eventually reduce the strategic influence of nations such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and Venezuela -- a truly bipartisan goal. And the president is right to push for reform of an immigration system that is economically counterproductive and morally unsustainable.
But the State of the Union raises serious concerns about Obama's economic approach. From either a conservative or liberal economic perspective, his proposals seem timid -- insufficient in scale to encourage a swift return to job creation.
The speech should raise questions among elected Democrats about the quality of Obama's party leadership. Obama used the Democratic majority as a foil. On the uninsured, he said, "I will not walk away from these Americans," implying that less-virtuous Democrats might be tempted. And he offered no path for congressional Democrats out of their health reform maze -- a maze that seems to have no exit. On health care, Obama preened at the expense of his party.
And the speech raises concerns about Obama's capacity to be a unifying national leader. An effective leader usually shares the passions and purposes of his countrymen. Rhetorically, Obama attempts to stand above the political process, above his own party, even above the country. He seems isolated in the tower of his own wisdom and purity. He judges. He lectures. We must strive to be worthy of him, not he of us.
Americans, no doubt, deserve some of Principal Obama's reprimands. But once scolded, will they follow him?