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.