It’s sincerely heartening these days, of course, just to hear a presidential speech delivered in complete, grammatical sentences, shorn of angry fearmongering and brazen paralogia. But Obama had to achieve far more than that. He had a tightrope to walk, having to avoid being too doom-n-gloomy (and thereby get accused of talking down the economy) but also avoid making unrealistically rosy promises (and thereby get accused of empty politicking). The times we are in are indeed, as he phrased it, “difficult and perilous,” yet he had to make clear that they are not insurmountably so.
He pulled it off.
Perhaps I should stop being surprised by this sort of thing. (But why? It’s such a pleasant surprise! I don’t want to start taking it for granted.) George Lakoff blogged before the speech about what he dubs “the Obama Code” (“code” in terms of both communications technique and moral values), concluding, “The president is the best political communicator of our age.”
But it wasn’t a triumph of presentation alone: it was also a matter of substance. The economy is, of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Notwithstanding possible disagreement about how serious the credit crunch is at this point (I’m not an expert, but I’ve seen persuasive arguments [pdf] on both sides), Obama discussed the economy in a way that was straightforward and realistic. He made the point that everyone—Republicans and Democrats, legislators and citizens—may have to give up some of their policy preferences in the short term, but balanced that with a confident insistence that this too shall pass; that with dedicated collective effort, today’s problems can and will be solved.
He didn’t offer up the usual laundry-list of wonkish policy goals that we’re so used to hearing from other presidents (of both parties) in other State of the Union speeches (which this was, in all but name). Instead, he laid a few important things out very clearly in terms of priorities. First, short-term recovery: job-creating stimulus, mortgage safeguards, and efforts to restore normal credit flows. Then, long-term investment: energy, health care, and education. It was a particular masterstroke, IMHO, to tie those three often-controversial issues (especially health care reform!) to fiscal savings and deficit reduction—pointing out why they’re not merely good policy ideas, they’re necessary for national economic stability.
And all this was framed in terms not only of individual responsibility to take constructive steps toward the future, but of government’s collective responsibility to meet the needs of its citizens and pave the way for those steps.
There’s always room to quibble about details, of course. I’d like to know more about how he expects GM and Chrysler to “reimagine” the American auto industry, for instance, and I really wish he’d stop talking about “clean coal” as if it was a viable energy alternative. But those are minor matters. The large-scale priorities are clear and compelling.
Even more impressively, virtually everyone liked the speech. CBS’s Jeff Greenfield compared it to FDR’s famous “fireside chats.” He got a lot of sincere applause—from both sides of the aisle; Republicans surely realized how small they’d look otherwise. (As was indeed the case when they didn’t clap, e.g., for children’s health insurance.) When was the last time you saw a U.S. president exit the chamber signing autographs for members of Congress? From both parties?
MSNBC’s broadcast used audience meters to show real-time responses to the speech—blue for those who’d voted for Obama, red for McCain voters. As Kossack Jed Lewison put it,
The dial has been consistently pinned to the top, so the red and blue are almost making things purple.
Now that’s bipartisanship we can believe in.
By way of confirmation, John Cole of Balloon Juice described a conference call with Stan Greenberg’s polling outfit in which
…the big take away here is that the response to Obama’s speech was almost the same among Republicans as among Democrats. The phrase I heard was “I have never seen anything like this before.”
Another point is that the talk about the bank and mortgage plans went over extremely well (contra Santelli).
But mainly there an amazing uniformity between Republican and Democratic response to the speech.
The snap polls from CNN and CBS showed the same thing. As summed up by Mark Nickolas at Political Base:
Once again, the public is overwhelmingly backing the direction that President Obama is taking the country and not listening to the know-nothing media which continues to push the narrative that the public is divided and that Obama’s honeymoon is over.
Funny how the media is so clueless when it comes to understanding where the American public stands on things. Amazing, really.
Approve of econ plan: 62% before speech — 79% after speech
Obama’s plan will help them: 35% before — 52% after
Good understanding of plan: 61% before — 75% after
Optimism in Obama’s term: 71% before — 79% after
Obama’s plan for economy: 73% better — 12% worse
Speech reaction: 92% positive — 8% negative
Direction of U.S.: 85% more optimistic — 11% more pessimistic
Obama’s plan: 82% support — 17% oppose
He was cool, calm, rational, and truthful, and people responded. During the campaign Obama spoke a lot about changing the tone in Washington… and this demonstrates what he meant. He clearly reached out not only to a national audience, but across the aisle to the GOP members of Congress. The only question is whether they’ll reach back.
The positive response was as worldwide as it was immediate. Michael Tomasky of The Guardian (UK) wrote,
It was a fantastic speech that defines a new era in this country. It’s time, he said, to do things we’ve put off for too long. We’ve put these tasks off and we know it. And we can’t put them off any longer.
And looking to the netroots… even a message-boarder who ignored Obama during the campaign and remains skeptical of his Wall Street policy couldn’t help being impressed:
I do see what people mean when they say he is inspiring. He really is. You watch him talk and you can tell he is a true believer. He believes in an America for everybody, not just those who can buy their little corner of it. I will probably vote for him next time.
At the end of the day, this is a man, a president, who I’m proud to have speak for my country. And if he accomplishes even half of the goals he laid out tonight, he’ll win in a landslide in 2012. And deserve to.
But let us not forget the “Republican Response.” I was briefly tempted to feel sorry for Bobby Jindal—talk about a hard act to follow!—but only briefly. He wore out any sympathy very, very quickly.
It was jarring at first to see a man of Indian descent speaking with a Southern accent, but that wore off. What didn’t was his painfully condescending, sing-songy tone. Obama, as always, spoke to his audience as intelligent adults; Jindal spoke to us like children.
As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver put it, “If it sounds like Jindal is targeting his speech to a room full of fourth graders, that’s because he is. They might be the next people to actually vote for Republicans again.” Really, it was just insulting. He could have acted it out with sock puppets.
As to substance, he had literally nothing to offer. Chris Mathews opined that “the only place in America Obama left open for anybody else is the far right”… and that’s the territory Jindal staked out. Tax cuts, Jindal told us, would somehow “create more jobs” than actual infrastructure investment. Money for high-speed rail (only one of several areas where the U.S. desperately needs to catch up with the rest of the world, as Obama recognizes—other obvious ones include broadband access and alternative energy) was dismissed as “wasteful.” And perhaps most bizarrely, he actually invoked Republican bureaucratic failures during Katrina as a reason we should trust the party now. On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann charitably described that proposition as “counterintuitive.” Rachel Maddow was literally stunned speechless.
The rest was boilerplate. And tired, exhausted, boilerplate. If the GOP believes tax cuts – more tax cuts – are the answer to every problem right now, they are officially out of steam and out of ideas. And remember: this guy is supposed to be the smart one.
The Grand Obstructionist Party had their chance, they fucked things up, and yet all they can think of doing is more of the same. Their day is done.
Still, Jindal isn’t entirely alone out there on the fringes. For a truly mind-boggling demonstration of cluelessness, we need look no further than the man utter tool who redefines “epic fail” for all other pundits, former New York Times columnist (now inexplicably being granted credibility by the Washington Post) Bill Kristol, who opined about Obama:
This was not the speech of a man who even contemplates the possibility of using force within the next year to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Aw, gosh, sorry, Bill, you didn’t get that third pointless war you wanted for Chrismas. Now, do you have any thoughts about anything that actually matters?