The state of the union may or may not be strong, but the State of the Union was liberal.
That was the view of media commentators from the left, right and center the morning after President Barack Obama delivered his fourth State of the Union address. The president called for a higher minimum wage, universal preschool and action on gun control and climate change, among other things. And the consensus is that his support for such measures signaled a public embrace of activist government that we've rarely seen since the rise of Ronald Reagan more than three decades ago.
Liberal blogger Charles P. Pierce of Esquire hailed Obama for abandoning the bipartisan, consensus-seeking approach of his first term in favor of something harder-edged. "Instead of Obama pretending that he represented the whole of American thinking and the entire body of the people," Pierce wrote, "the president laid down a blueprint for progressives."
Writing in the New York Times, former Bill Clinton speechwriter Ted Widmer called it "the most Democratic State of the Union in some time," adding that "it was refreshing to hear him be himself."
Considerably less refreshed were the editors of the conservative National Review, who editorialized that Obama delivered a "halting and graceless" speech, "terribly appropriate" for Mardis Gras because "he spent the evening shouting 'Laissez les bons temps rouler!' at every liberal constituency in sight."
Nonpartisan analysts pointed out that though the agenda Obama articulated could be labeled with the "L"-word, the president implicitly acknowledged that government will be unable to pay for it even in the unlikely event that the Republican opposition lets him have his way.
The Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau chief, Gerald F. Seib, who works for the paper's respected news pages rather than its conservative opinion section, described it as "liberal government on the cheap." Seib noted that the cost of Obama's most ambitious idea -- an increase in the minimum wage from $7.50 to $9 an hour -- would be paid by private business rather than government.
"Rather than go big and bold," added Ron Fournier of National Journal, "President Obama settled Tuesday night for incremental and pragmatic. For all his swagger and political capital, the president subtly acknowledged the limits of what he can accomplish."
Indeed, though liberals largely applauded Obama's activist approach (Ezra Klein of the Washington Post called it "incredibly ambitious"), some lamented the president's caution.
Writing in The New Republic, Timothy Noah observed that Obama hadn't mentioned the minimum wage at all in his previous State of the Union addresses. Noah said that if Obama were to keep his 2008 campaign promises, adjusted for inflation, he would have called for $10.13 an hour rather than $9. "But since Obama hadn't previously pushed to increase the minimum wage since he entered the White House," Noah added, "perhaps we should be grateful he's now willing to call for any increase at all."
The president's power to set the media agenda is also evident in what people aren't writing about today -- the remote-controlled targeted-killing program, which recently made its long-overdue lurch into the news thanks to Obama's nomination of George W. Bush holdover John Brennan as CIA director.
Obama's only reference to drone killings Tuesday night was brief and oblique, and most of the media went along. Joshua Hersh of The Huffington Post took note of Obama's promise to bring transparency to a program whose existence he won't even acknowledge. William Saletan of Slate referred to drones as "the unspoken force that is shaping his agenda," since they are enabling Obama to bring the troops home from Afghanistan and to focus on his domestic goals. But there wasn't a whole lot more than that.
Since winning reelection, Obama has appeared more confident and upbeat than at any time since his 2008 campaign, and media coverage has reflected that. With the Republicans momentarily unable to put forth any sort of credible alternative (Sen. Marco Rubio's official response came across as the product of a 1986-vintage Republican random phrase-generator), the president's second honeymoon is likely to continue a little while longer.
But such interludes never last. The "L"-word may have lost some of its power to frighten and intimidate. Still, as the promise of winter gives way to the realities of spring and summer, what is written with respect today will no doubt come back as mockery.
Happy Valentine's Day, Mr. President. Love, the Media. Don't get used to it, okay?