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Class act, missed opportunity

David Hollinger, professor emeritus of history | January 26, 2011

Classy, statesman-like speech ideally suited for the political situation in which he finds himself at this particular historical moment, confronted with a Republican House and a Senate filled with Democrats who are anything but bold.

Yet he could have used the opportunity to call attention to the drastic gap that has developed since the Reagan era between the rich and the poor in this country. He passes up one opportunity after another to do this, apparently because he believes it would come across as “divisive” and will hurt what chances he has of achieving bi-partisan cooperation. This is a sufficiently huge feature of the nation today that it is a troubling weakness of Obama’s leadership that he has not found a way to focus more attention on it even as he presents himself as ready to “work with the Republicans” to solve the nation’s problems.

To be sure, one cannot expect from Obama at this time anything remotely like FDR’s great 1944 State of the Union (when FDR set forth the “economic bill of rights” that was of course never enacted but was the capstone of the New Deal) or LBJ’s 1965 State of the Union (when LBJ, with a huge democratic majority behind him, outlined “The Great Society” some of which was indeed enacted), two of the grandest State of the Union addresses in all of American history.

Obama knows about those speeches, and indeed Obama is the most historically aware president since Woodrow Wilson. He knows his historic situation is very different from FDR’s or LBJ’s. He delivered a speech carefully crafted to deal with his immediate, highly constrained circumstances. He plays the cards he is dealt, and he reads them well.