The Philosophical President

"There was quite a bit of lecturing, not leading."

This is what Sarah Palin said about Barack Obama's State of the Union speech. Yes, I laughed, too -- but it's worth listening to Palin's response (if not taking it too seriously). I found the president's speech serious to the point of contemplative. We all know that Obama was a law professor. He deeply believes that thesis, brought into conflict with antithesis, will result in synthesis -- truth.

One of Obama's greatest unheralded risks is his repeated attempt to use politics to help lead toward truth, rather than just a win. You might call this the "philosophical model" of the presidency. Whether or not using the presidency not just to educate but to help collectively drive toward greater understanding works for people when more material needs are on their minds is a critical question for Obama. It's a new experiment, one that is unfolding as we speak.

In several conversations I've had since the speech, the topic of Obama's silences has come up. Often you could hear a pin drop, as the president introduced big themes, complicated them, let a heavy idea drop on the shoulders of his audience. He delivered some lines literally to make people ponder, rather than rise from our chairs cheering.

Here's one example -- a leading passage meant to make people reflect on their own responsibility to counter pessimism with a sort of voluntary optimism:

As one woman wrote me, "We are strained but hopeful, struggling but encouraged." . . . It is because of this spirit - this great decency and great strength - that I have never been more hopeful about America's future than I am tonight. Despite our hardships, our union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit. We do not allow fear or division to break our spirit. In this new decade, it's time the American people get a government that matches their decency; that embodies their strength.

And tonight, I'd like to talk about how together, we can deliver on that promise.

Note that he says, "I'd like to talk about..." It's as if Obama is inviting us to reason together. This is what Palin heard as a "lecture."

Then there was the passage where he slowly, methodically, almost quietly mocked the "noise" that surrounds politics today:

But remember this - I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone. Democracy in a nation of three hundred million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That's just how it is.

Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths. We can do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation.

But I also know this: if people had made that decision fifty years ago or one hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, we wouldn't be here tonight.

Here, he linked "doing big things and making big changes" with an opposition to "noisy and messy and complicated." He quietly suggested those who are "noisy and messy and complicated" are not on the right path; reason, paired up with policy ambitions, will instead lead the way.

The only problem is it hasn't worked out that way so far. Obama's greatest rhetorical successes have also been his most reflective -- e.g. the campaign's "race speech" about Jeremiah Wright, or Obama's Oslo speech reconciling the Nobel Peace Prize with his deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. But both of these speeches were also retrospective -- about events in the past, rather than policies in the future. The question is whether this approach can sustain the presidency itself, especially against the Republicans' scorched-earth tactics. Can Hegelian dialectic be the rule, rather than the exception?

The answer, I suppose, will lie in the eating of the pudding. If the president's injunction to be more thoughtful about our problems and more capacious in our understanding ends up eliciting more participation in solutions, then he's right. If, on the other hand, during all those long silences last night, Republican operatives were only scheming about how to kill every single one of his proposals -- and they do it -- then it will have been an exhibit of a beautiful mind.

That's what Palin was after with her attack on Obama's "lecture." After all, inanity has never been inconsistent with extremists' strategy; indeed, in dark times, it is sometimes their best playbook.

This piece also appears at PPI's new website, the Progressive Fix.