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SOTU 2009
A new tone as a legitimate President speaks

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
February 26, 2009

One thing I was struck by in the wake of the SOTU address tonight was that Faux News handled him with kid gloves. While reciting GOP talking points about exploding the deficit and letting government take over our lives, they were conspicuously circumspect. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, the conveniently (and rarely) ethnic spokesperson for the GOP, was chipper, chirpy, optimistic, and made a few vague promises to quibble over the details of Obama's vision for America. He kind of let the cat out of the bag at the end, though, when he said, “Tonight, on behalf of our leaders in Congress and my fellow Republican governors, I say this: Our party is determined to regain your trust.”

Yeah, he knows that the GOP is in deep, deep trouble. I noticed the Democrats doing the same thing when Bush gave his SOTU speech four months after 9/11. That speech was patently a fraud. He was already working hard to use 9/11 as an excuse to lower taxes on the wealthy and as a causus belli to attack Iraq. He was speaking in ominous tones about “the axis of evil.” Despite this patent nonsense, and his less-than-endearing habit during the speech of letting his eyes dart about the chamber, a sly smirk on his face as he gauged the effect of a speech he doubtlessly contributed nothing to, Democrats were careful to say nothing more derogatory than to make a few vague promises – largely unkept – to quibble over the details of Bush's vision for America. At that point, the Dems had a problem. Questioning Bush was tantamount to treason in the eyes of the public, and Bush was riding high in the polls, around 70%. It was a big change from the previous year, when Bush had a 50% approval rating, among the lowest ever for a first-year president, and I didn't even bother writing about the speech. I was getting hate mail for daring to suggest that by demanding tax cuts for the rich, Republicans were trying to exploit 9/11 to their purposes. It would have been his career for any Democratic congressman to do the same thing. The Republicans have a similar problem now. In both instances, they are a minority party facing an immensely popular president during a time of crisis. But that's where the similarities stop. It's heresy to say this, but the fact is the economic crisis is a much larger crisis than 9/11. It has already cost America much more money, and has weakened America significantly more. Chances are it's already killed more people. In a worst-case scenario, it could turn America into what right wingers contemptuously refer to as a “pauper nation.” Obama is as popular as Bush was four months after 9/11. The difference is that Obama's popularity is based on trust and respect that he fought years to gain, whereas Bush was the bemused and somewhat amused beneficiary of being in the White House when a catastrophe struck, an event he memorably referred to as his “trifecta.” Not since Pearl Harbor has a president had such luck. Guess whose popularity is likely to hold up better for six more years? Bush promised to avenge 9/11 and never delivered. The men responsible for setting it up are still loose. Obama has promised to get America rolling again, and he may or may not deliver, but I think that unlike Bush, he'll actually make an honest effort along those lines. Obama has made a promise – a rash one, in my opinion – to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term. That will come back to haunt him. As for the speech itself, it was the first most folks have seen since Obama finished settling in at the Oval Office, and it was a good start. He has a gift for explaining things clearly without making them simplistic, and he has a major advantage over Bush in that he usually understands what he's talking about. With Bush, you frequently got the feeling that he literally did not understand the things he was promoting in his speech. Take, for example, Obama's explanation of why the banks had to be bailed out: “[T]he flow of credit is the lifeblood of our economy. The ability to get a loan is how you finance the purchase of everything from a home to a car to a college education, how stores stock their shelves, farms buy equipment, and businesses make payroll. But credit has stopped flowing the way it should. Too many bad loans from the housing crisis have made their way onto the books of too many banks. And with so much debt and so little confidence, these banks are now fearful of lending out any more money to households, to businesses, or even to each other. When there's no lending, families can't afford to buy homes or cars, so businesses are forced to make layoffs. Our economy suffers even more, and credit dries up even further. That is why this administration is moving swiftly and aggressively to break this destructive cycle, to restore confidence, and restart lending.” Surprisingly few presidents had that gift. Bill Clinton did, as did Ronald Reagan. Franklin Roosevelt invented the ability to speak person-to-person to millions of people in his famous “Fireside chats.” Such presidents tend to be resilient, and maintain their popularity in trying times. One of the most reassuring moments in his speech came just a few minutes later, when he said, “So I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now, especially when everyone is suffering in part from their bad decisions. I promise you: I get it. But I also know that, in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger or yield to the politics of the moment.” That's exactly what we need in a president right now. Let's hope he can fit the role to the words. For me, personally, the moment of utter delight came when Obama said, “I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture.” For Republicans who wish to hell Bush had never leaned forward on his elbows and told the world with great earnestness and conviction that “America does not torture,” that moment may have felt suspiciously like torture. Not all Republicans looked dyspeptic, though: McCain heartily applauded. Looks like he got a little bit of his soul, wizened and dry from disuse on the campaign trail, back. The speech, in many ways, was standard SOTU stuff. He bragged of what he has accomplished in his month in office (and it is an impressive list). He introduced the home-spun heroes. He delivered feel-good remarks about truth, justice, and the American bray to force pinch-faced Republicans to stand and applaud him. He made lots of promises, and assured one and all that America will prevail. Nobody really expects much from the SOTUs. Like Clinton, he was stronger on policy than most presidents are in that situation, and, like Clinton, a bit long-winded, but he didn't do himself any harm and probably did much to reassure people that he really would be trying to guide America through the economic crisis and all the other problems and trials we will face over the next few years. He isn't repeating Clinton's mistake of blowing off the right wing noise machine. They've been working overtime to try to convince the public that there really wasn't a major economic crisis until Obama took office, and that he's why it suddenly got so bad. So four times in his speech tonight, he pointedly reminded everyone that he -inherited- this crisis. Lies still have power, in the face of all evidence. He's wise to defuse them whenever he can. Over the next 24 hours, people will hear all about the speech—how many watched, if there were any miscues (a MSNBC staffer muttered “Oh, gawd” into a hot mike as Jindal was approaching to give the Repubican rebuttal), and pundits and the bloggers will all tell us what we should think about it.

It was, in my mind, a good, solid performance, and if the speech wasn't one for the ages, it certainly reminded people that, if nothing else, it's not 2002 any more.  

Posted: February 26, 2009

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