Why the president succeeded with his State of the Union address tonight

Obama cut a presidential figure, especially compared to his rivals.

President Obama gave a pretty good speech tonight. American exceptionalism and the emergence from darker times were the interwoven themes of the evening. Scattered throughout were some decent ideas on Senate reform and tax policy, but overall it was still a pretty low-calorie affair. Nothing too wonky or deep. Nothing to sink our teeth into.

Still, I think it’s important to remember the intended audience when we listen to these sorts of speeches. Most Americans, after all, don’t obsess over politics the way we bloggers and denizens of the internet do. Most Americans like to hear a positive, rousing speech that isn’t too long.

Just as importantly, it’s remarkable to watch Barack Obama speak about his vision for America. He cuts a striking contrast with his opponents in the GOP primary. There’s not a lot of visionary material in the speech itself – nothing particularly detailed – but he sure looks like a president doesn’t he?

After several months of the GOP primary circus, listening to Obama give a rousing speech about the American dream, the American promise – the indispensable nation that is us – well, it’s hard not to compare him to the dimensionless Mitt Romney, or the bristly Newt Gingrich and his aura of self-importance. Obama looks dignified. He has gravitas. He’s eloquent.

Still, Andrew Sullivan was disappointed:

I was hoping for a vision. I was hoping for real, strategic reform. What we got was one big blizzard of tax deductions, wrapped in a populist cloak. It was treading water. I suspect this will buoy liberal spirits, but anger the right and befuddle the independents. It definitely gives the Republican case against Obama as a big government meddler more credibility. I may be wrong – but the sheer cramped, tedious, mediocre micro-policies he listed were uninspiring to say the least.

We voted for Obama; now we find we got another Clinton. The base will like this. I’m not sure independents will. As performance, he did as well as he could with the thin material he had in his hands. As a speech, I thought it was the worst of his SOTUs, when he really needed his best.

Josh Barro wanted Obama to talk about monetary policy and was disappointed when he didn’t. Indeed, there was little policy meat in tonight’s speech.

But isn’t hoping for a vision sort of missing the point? Isn’t hoping for concrete policy a little like wishing for unicorns?

This is the first of many campaign speeches Obama will give. Will it anger independents? I don’t think so. Most independents are actually just undecided low-information voters.

The point of a speech like this one – an election year State of the Union Address – is not to lay out a grand vision. To be honest, the time for grand visions is over. What the president needs to do – and what he didn’t do enough tonight – is lay out in stark terms why his presidency is important and distinct from the hypothetical presidency of Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich.

But none of that really matters. Obama looked like a president tonight. He sounded like one, too. For that matter, Mitch Daniels actually sounded a bit like a president.

Both men sound a lot more like presidents than Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich. This is a really bad sign for the Republican party. And since it’s too late for Daniels to get into the race, it’s a really good sign for Obama.

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the editor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.