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A Good Speech, But to the Wrong Audience

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Jami Floyd

Last night I watched with 100 of my fellow political junkies as President Obama gave his third State of the Union address. We tweeted along, in earnest, with mostly substantive commentary, though the tweets were laced with wry humor about John Boehner's emotional reaction to Obama's remark about his boyhood and whether Vice President Biden himself was tweeting.

I said on this page yesterday that, for Obama, this speech needed to be a big transformational moment, a speech that would evoke FDR and Kennedy, one that would remind us why we voted for him in the first place.

We face enormous challenges: Putting millions of people back to work, preparing our children to compete in the global economy and, of course, the massive budget deficit that looms over America's future.

I suggested the President deliver a speech that tackled each of these while, at the same time, recalling his message of hope and change - now underway in America. This SOTU address, at the two-year mark in his presidency - and heading into his reelection bid - was his opportunity to show us, with key examples, that he is fulfilling the promises of his campaign, in light of those practical realities.

The President and his advisors clearly made a different choice. Instead of a speech that reached for the hearts and minds of Americans, we had a speech that was largely about compromise with Congress.

President Obama always starts out strong, and he did again last night, with a warm welcome, proper acknowledgment of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the Greene family, and a preacherly call for unity in the wake of the tragedy in Tucson.

Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater - something more consequential than party or political preference. We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.

And with that he was on his way to the hearts and minds of America. But then he took the left turn toward compromise - and great detail (always part of the SOTU, and my least favorite part).

The President talked about the need for government investment in highways and railroads, schools, and new clean-energy industries. He talked in great detail about his national goals in this area -- 85% of the country's energy should come from clean energy sources by the year 2035; 80 % percent of Americans should have access to high-speed rail within 25 years; 98 % should have access to high-speed wireless within five years (that drew big applause in the Greene Space, btw).

This is all well and good, but it bogged down the message: Change is happening; hope is here.

The speech started to get back on message when Obama tackled the issue of spending. You could almost see him looking Republicans squarely in the eye (though House Speaker John Boehner was seated behind him, as is the custom, and the rest of the audience were in a new bipartisan seating arrangement, which is not the custom).

Here, President Obama talked a tougher game: Eliminating taxpayer subsidies for oil companies (to help pay for that clean-energy initiative); extending his proposed three-year freeze on some discretionary programs to five years (for $400 billion in savings over 10 years); cutting mandatory spending on Medicare and Social Security; and cutting military spending (more applause in the Greene Space).

We were well beyond the halfway mark before he got to foreign policy -- an interesting choice, given that we are still fighting two wars. It was a choice dictated, his advisors must have felt, by the economic times.

And Sputnik. All day Tuesday, people were talking about Sputnik. The Russian word "sputnik" literally means "co-traveler", "traveling companion" or "satellite." In case you are under thirty-five and missed it, the Sputnik Program was the Soviet space program, in which they launched the first human-made robot to orbit the Earth. The reference yesterday was to John Kennedy's famous speech in which he launched the race to the moon. Presidential historians call it a transcendental moment in Kennedy's presidency and for America.

Last night, President Obama embraced the analogy:

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon. The science wasn't there yet. NASA didn't even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation's Sputnik moment.

Yet last night's speech lacked the transcendental quality of Kennedy's speech delivered in Houston, back when President Obama was an infant (and before most people in the Greene Space, last night, were born).

Still, this President governs in a new century, during an unprecedented era of partisanship. Given that context, Obama's SOTU offered a welcome contrast to all of the posturing that has passed for productivity in the first few weeks of the new Republican-controlled House.

I've heard rumors that a few of you have some concerns about the new health care law. So let me be the first to say that anything can be improved. If you have ideas about how to improve this law by making care better or more affordable, I am eager to work with you. .What I'm not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a pre-existing condition... So instead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let's fix what needs fixing and move forward.

Move forward, indeed. That is leadership. That is the reason we elected Barack Obama - because when he says, "move forward" most Americans want to move forward with him.

At times Tuesday night, Mr. Obama was truly captivating, with a vision for the country to move forward, restored in confidence, united in a sense of purpose. And of course, at the end of the speech, he was inspired. Americans need to hear a lot more from that President Obama.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues.