President Obama’s first State of the Union address (full text here) was given in tough times, to say the least, but by God, the guy pulled it off. Obama is a clutch player in the speech department, and tonight he put aside his usual soaring oratory in favor of a self-deprecating, amiable, yet at times “scolding dad” talk with the American people, in which he acknowledged setbacks, defended his record, reminded the country of what he faced coming in to office, and all but dared Republicans to spend the entire speech sitting down. And I think the Republicans made a tactical error not standing up during much of the speech, including when the president talked about recovering money from the big banks (in fact, they’re already gearing up to try and stop it), and ending tax breaks for oil companies and the wealthy (the president actually chided them at one point for not applauding his litany of already-passed tax cuts.) Toward the end, you could tell the GOP side understood how this looked on television, and they started standing up in clumps, whenever they could. Obama’s speech tonight was a smart charm offensive, that amiably, but very definitively, reminded Democrats that “we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills,” while cautioning Republicans that now that they have their 41 votes, and since they insist on 60 vote minimums to pass any bill, their butts are now on the line for doing the people’s business, too.
Obama talked about jobs and the economy for most of the speech, smartly pointed out that he, like most Americans, “hated the bank bailouts,” while explaining why they were necessary, and announced a couple of new initiatives: one to put $30 million in remaining TARP money into community banks that lend to small businesses, and an expansion of high speed rail, which the president will launch in Tampa tomorrow. While he didn’t make it a focal point, he urged the Congress not to walk away from “health insurance” (no longer “healthcare”) reform. He did announce that spending freeze, and threw in a couple of bones for Republicans, including opening some offshore drilling, and investing in new nuclear power plants and the entirely fictional item known as “clean coal.” He called on Congress to pass a jobs bill — or rather, for the Senate to do so. There were a number of times in the speech that Obama seemed to go out of his way to point out bills passed by the House, but not yet by the Senate. Nancy Pelosi was a happy woman tonight (so was Anthony Weiner, who gloated that Obama “spanked the Senate five times,” before calling the upper house “our enemy.”) He called for financial regulatory reform (to which the Republicans also sat on their hands,) and in the most in-your-face moment I think I’ve ever seen in a state of the union speech, the president went directly after the Supreme Court’s dreadful decision to allow unlimited corporate spending on campaigns. Samuel Alito’s face during that particular moment was priceless, and he shook his head vigorously and appeared to mutter “not true” in rebuttal, making him our Joe Wilson of the night. (McCain also had a mutter moment, when he was seen mouthing “blame it on Bush” as Obama described the economic mess Dubya left him.)
For the lefties, Obama did call for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and he called for increases in education funding, plus a $10,000 tax credit to pay for college, which was music to my ears as the mother of a child looking at college in four short years. I think it was important that the president took time to go through the legislative achievements of last year, and to make the case that the party did what it had to do to save the country from collapse, giving Democrats a case to make in the midterms.
Most importantly, Obama’s speech, and the way it forced Republicans to take sides for or against the banks, the wealthy, and the very idea of partisanship in Washington, very skillfully reset the positions on the chess board, placing Democrats and Republicans back in the context they had been before the tea party movement seemed to make the party of the rich into the populist party. Tonight, it was Democrats who applauded when Obama announced good things for the little guy, and Republicans who refused to applaud when he went after the moneyed interests who have benefited over the last decade. By dint of his style, which is equal parts Cliff Huxtable and Ray Miland, Obama reinforced his image as the adult in Washington, separate from and presiding over a Congress full of squabbling children and trying, gently but firmly, to get them back on task. Polls already show the public blames Democrats to some extend, but even more so Republicans, and not the president, for the current state of affairs in the country and in Washington. That gap will widen after tonight, particularly if the GOP chooses to stay the course, and continue to shriek “NO!” at the president. (To their credit, the Republicans managed to avoid any embarrassing outbursts tonight, apparently, following a meeting of the caucus. It’s a shame when you’ve got to have a meeting to tell your people not to behave like poorly raised jerks.)
I went into the speech prepared to be disappointed, frankly, since I’m one of those members of the president’s base who has been disappointed with how little got done last year, and at how passive the president has appeared. But damned if it doesn’t appear that Obama’s strategy of dogged bipartisanship isn’t working for him. After tonight, Republicans are going to look pretty darned petty going after him, after he reminded the country of our history of putting, as John McCain used to say, “country first.”
Over to the headlines for the takeaway from tonight:
- AP went with “I don’t quit,” which was one of the best lines of the night (another being “I don’t accept second place for the United States of America.”
- McClatchy compares Obama to the gipper with its headline, “Obama channels Ronald Reagan: ‘Stay the course‘”
- From the New York Times, a couple of headlines: “Obama Calls Jobs ‘Number One Focus,’” “Tells His Party Not to ‘Run for the Hills’ on Its Agenda” and a Helene Cooper piece, “In Speech, Little Time Spent on National Security“
- At the WaPo, Ann Kornblut and Michael Sheer focus on the president’s demand for bi-partisan cooperation.
- The Huffpo also goes with “I don’t quit“
- Politico chose to go with: “President Obama: I never said change would be easy,” rather than the more Politico-like “President tries to rescue dying party with futile speech, on same night Santa Claus revealed to be registered Republican.” UPDATE: Politico reverts back to form this morning, with John Harris writing that the president was “groping for a strategy” and calling his speech … wait for it … “desperate.” The Cheneys will be well pleased …
- Joshua Greenman of the NYDN: The prez had swagger.
- A couple of Congressional reax: Sen. Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina said: “He sort of took us to the principal’s office, didn’t he?” and Congressman Jim McDermott of Washington State waxed pessimistic: “The fact is we have an opposition determined to bring him down. I don’t know when he’s going to get the message…They’re not going to help him at all. Watch. I’ve been doing this a long time.” (McDermott is probably right.)
- More reax from The Daily Beast’s contributors, starting with the thoroughly readable Christopher Buckley: “Obama didn’t deliver a speech so much as a symphony, calling for nukes and zapping the Supremes; thanks for the performance, Mr. President.”
- Howard Fineman: “Obama dominated the room.”
- Glenn Beck has a general meltdown, calls Obama a cheating husband, and a punk… (Media Matters catalogues all the right wing hysteria and name calling over the speech here.)