President Barack Obama, being able to set his pitch in the most politically advantageous direction, naturally chose to accentuate the positive. He contended in a time of sluggish economic recovery that the state of the country was "getting stronger," citing modest manufacturing and job growth, including the bouncing back of the American auto industry, helped by federal loans.
Meanwhile, in Florida, the Republican contenders escalated their intramural slugfest. A more aggressive Mitt Romney resurrected Newt Gingrich's financial and ethical failings as House speaker in the 1990s and since. Mr. Gingrich in return challenged Mr. Romney's methods in acquiring his staggeringly great wealth, in the process highlighting the relatively low capital gains tax rate he has paid on it.
In effect, Mr. Obama dusted off the old John Kennedy appeal to "get this country moving again," while the Republicans continued their circular firing squad in their effort to persuade Florida's voters which of them could best take on Mr. Obama in the fall. The show, to say the least, was not pretty.
On the most advantageous platform of the year for any president, Mr. Obama basked in the ceremonial trappings of the annual message. He received heavy applause from the Democratic side of the House chamber, while the Republicans mostly responded politely, devoid of any "You lie!" cries of the sort that he had previously encountered.
He optimistically laid out an agenda of modest legislative steps toward repairing a battered middle class, as much to underscore Republican obstructionism as in expectation that the agenda would be enacted. Against the background of Mr. Romney's revelation of his minimal tax burden, Mr. Obama reintroduced his call for millionaires and billionaires to assume a proportionately higher share.
Beyond his old call for the richest 2 percent of Americans to give up their Bush tax cuts and other loopholes, he proposed that those who earn a million dollars or more a year be required to pay income taxes of at least 30 percent on their bundle, about twice what Mr. Romney has been shelling out in capital gains.
The proposal predictably has met with more wails of "class warfare" from the Republicans. It's a cry that Mr. Gingrich himself has seemed to voice in his assault on the nicely phrased "creative destruction" Mr. Romney allegedly waged as CEO of Bain Capital in boosting profits for certain private enterprises.
The now-departed Rick Perry left behind his choice description of the same as "vulture capitalism," which for a time had Mr. Romney accusing Mr. Gingrich of doing the Democrats' dirty work for them by demeaning capitalism itself.
The sound of all this must be as satisfying to the Obama White House as the actual applause the president got from Congress while delivering his upbeat if wishful forecast of the future.
Viewers who stayed tuned in to the Republican rebuttal by Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana heard a sharp contrast to the flailings of the presidential challengers that may make some Republicans wish he had agreed to seek the party's nomination.
In a calm but forceful plea for bipartisanship in Congress while adhering to the same free-enterprise litany of today's GOP, Mr. Daniels even echoed Mr. Obama's call for the rich to pay a higher share of the national tax burden as a reasonable response to the economic doldrums in which America still finds itself. The government "should stop sending the wealthy benefits they do not need and stop providing them so many tax preferences," he said.
Perhaps there will be time enough after the 2012 Republican presidential nominee is chosen for the party to cultivate a better image than the current squabbles have produced. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama can be thankful that his opportunity to put his own best face on the state of the union came in the present winter of discontent in the country, and during the winter of self-flagellation in the Republican Party.