As if the Republicans didn’t have enough problems, President Obama’s State of the Union address gave them more reason to worry.
On Tuesday night, Obama defined a potentially powerful new narrative for himself and his campaign. Gone was the candidate of hope and change. Gone was the president who often came off as more disinterested observer than passionate patriot. There, instead, addressing a Congress girding for the upcoming election, was Captain America — an unabashedly bullish protector and promoter of America and Americans.
Yes, this was a State of the Union, with the laundry list of promises and initiatives one would expect. In terms of policy, Republicans are already attacking its spending proposals and policy prescriptions. Elections, however, are rarely won on a careful analysis of policy. They are battles between competing narratives. And the candidate able to articulate a narrative that best resonates with voters is the candidate who will lead our country for the next four years.
As political narratives go, the Captain America story we heard Tuesday has the potential not only to help boost Obama during his coming election fight but to help de-position his eventual opponent in the process.
In 2008, no one could have envisioned candidate Obama touting his military victories. Yet arguably his greatest successes have come on the battlefield. And the speech demonstrated a newfound confidence as commander in chief. He’s the president who ended the war in Iraq and finally got Osama bin Laden. Candidate Obama held his hand out to Iran. Today, no options are “off the table” when it comes to containing that country’s nuclear ambitions. He even credited American strength for helping bring about the political thaw in Burma.
Obama’s entire narrative, in fact, was drawn from military metaphor: The country is in a battle for our future, not of rich vs. poor, but of America vs. the world. The language of class warfare and partisan skirmishes was largely absent. Instead, he sought to put patriotism above all. We are Team America, he told us, and we have only to do our part for America to succeed.
The narrative, and it’s a powerful one, places all Americans on the same side. Of equal importance, it places Obama — whose opponents often characterize him as somehow un-American — not only on the team, but as captain.
Obama’s proposals were framed in pro-America themes, and he emphasized “American values.” He would tax companies that send jobs overseas and reward those that bring them home. He would seek new markets for our goods and aggressively go after any country — especially China — that doesn’t play by the rules. On foreign policy, he forcefully championed our global standing. In all, he said “America” or “American” 87 times, 30 more times than last year.
This Obama doesn’t apologize for America or question American exceptionalism. He embraces it.
Looking forward to the campaign, this is smart. When it comes to Captain America, you’re either with him or against him. We already saw it in Mitch Daniels’s response. Following the optimism and future focus of Obama’s speech, Daniels sounded dour and pessimistic. He was Carter to Obama’s Reagan, Kerry to Obama’s Bush.
The Captain America narrative will appeal to Obama’s base. More importantly, it should play well with the independents who hold the key to the 2012 election. But it represents a gamble. In Obama’s view, “the state of our union is getting stronger,” companies are hiring again and manufacturing is making a comeback. But if voters feel his vision doesn’t align with their truth — and regarding the economy, it’s less about statistics and more about the millions of people who still feel dangerously close to the cliff — then nothing Obama does or says will get him reelected.
What separates the forgettable from the effective State of the Unions is the ability to frame dry policy within a larger story about America, our people and our place in the world. In a year when Obama’s reelection is anything but certain, this speech puts him squarely on the side of all Americans. And if his campaign embraces this message with the discipline it showed in 2008 — and the economy continues to edge forward, and not back — Captain America will prove to be a tough superhero to beat.
Maslansky is CEO of maslansky luntz + partners, a corporate and political messaging and communication strategy firm. He is the author of “The Language of Trust.”