Barack Obama and Mike Pence are two different, different men.
The president of the United States, a Democrat, and the governor of Indiana, a Republican, came to their big speeches – the State of the Union and the State of the State – with similar challenges.
Both find themselves embattled when, in certain ways, conventional political wisdom says they shouldn’t be.
Both leaders touted their records as job creators.
Pence said during his 28-minute talk that more Hoosiers were working than at any time in Indiana history. He said the unemployment rate for the state had been cut nearly in half during his governorship.
Obama said during his 59-minute speech that the American economy had seen the greatest sustained surge of private-sector job growth in the nation’s history. He noted that more than 14 million new jobs had been created since he took the oath of office nearly seven years ago.
Both men are right.
Record numbers of people have gone to work on their watch. In normal times, that fact alone should guarantee a political leader the approval of a majority of the voters.
Why, then, do both Barack Obama and Mike Pence struggle to keep their public approval ratings from slipping under water?
The answer can be found in a single word both men made the connecting theme of their respective speeches.
Pence did it more obviously and less elegantly. Citing Indiana’s bicentennial this year, the governor said:
“Indiana is not just 200 years old. Indiana is 200 years strong.”
He touted, in almost perfunctory fashion to generally perfunctory applause, a brief recounting of Hoosier milestones and his agenda for the year, such as it is. He said drugs were bad and God was good. He took a shot at the president’s (accurate) comments about Indiana being a principal gun supplier for Chicago and acted as if the education battles that have all but paralyzed the state’s schools somehow were happening in a galaxy far, far away.
The speech’s anticipated big moment – the announcement of his stance on the inclusion of the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered citizens – was anticlimactic.
Pence said no Hoosier should be discriminated against, but also pledged to support the religious freedom of those who argue their faith encourages them to treat LGBT citizens differently. He said these were serious differences and argued it was the legislature’s job to resolve them.
He did not promise leadership on the state’s most divisive issue.
If anything, he promised to avoid exercising leadership.
The most charitable interpretation of Pence’s position is that he plans just to be a passive participant in a historic debate.
The other possibility, of course, is that he plans to try to stand in the path of history and yell, “Stop!”
Obama took a different approach in his speech.
He argued that America and Americans were in the midst of a period of historic change. He said Americans and their leaders either could try to run from the change and face ruin or they could rise up to meet it and find the opportunities that lie within every challenge.
The president said the source of America’s greatness came from the sources of strength found in the many varied corners of the country. He said the more inclusive America is – the more we work to make sure that all citizens have an equal shot at achieving the American Dream – the stronger the country is.
And he took aim at political opponents who portray America as a nation in nosedive.
“Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline,” Obama said, “is peddling fiction.”
These annual addresses are important moments for presidents and governors. Such moments are among the best chances leaders have to set agendas, alter debates and command the public’s attention.
On the night when both the president and the governor could be star, playwright and director in their own dramas, the choices they made in regard to how they used the spotlight revealed a great deal about them.
Barack Obama cast himself as an agent of and catalyst for history.
Mike Pence presented himself almost as a passive victim of history.
But, then, Barack Obama and Mike Pence are two different, different men.