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
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
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
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
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.
February 26, 2009