I did a brief SOTU piece for The Daily Beast. Here’s my key graf:
That said, what we’ve learned time and again over the past year is that there’s only so far that great speeches get you. To govern, you need Congress to pass bills. And to get Congress to pass bills, you need 60 votes in the Senate. Obama has done a good job, at times, of putting the Republican leadership on the defensive and the State of the Union should help do just that. Obama seized the mantle of responsibility, pragmatism, and seriousness while challenging the GOP to show some good faith and willingness to be a constructive partner in government. But what he’s never been able to do is to generate the kind of specific, concrete political pressure on incumbent Republican senators that inspires them to vote “yes” on his bills or confirm his nominees. And nothing in his speech changes that dynamic.
I think this is what both Obama’s defenders, and his critics and the left, and his centrist critics all fail to understand. People like to think that if he does [pet favorite political gambit] that it will create the political context in which resisting his agenda becomes untenable. They need to acknowledge that he’s actually consistently succeeded at that goal. He is way more popular than the congressional GOP leadership and has been since his inauguration. But that obviously hasn’t generated the kind of specific, concrete “I need to vote for Obama’s health plan to show I’m a different kind of Republican or I’ll lose my seat” political pressure that passes bills.
On a recent BloggingHeads with Reihan Salam we talked about whether there was any tactical approach Obama could have taken that would have inspired some Republicans to back him on health care. I say no:
Some of the failure of concrete pressure to manifest itself is out of Obama’s control. I think both Judd Gregg and George Voinovich would have been vulnerable incumbents had they not chosen to retire. And some of it is in his control. But the overall point is that Team Obama has been masterful at the big-picture politics of “make people like Barack Obama more than they like his critics” and lousy at the nuts-and-bolts politics of “make Obama’s enemies fear angering him.”