Wednesday, February 25, 2009

About last night....

... and trying to digest President Obama's un-SOTU address to Congress.

Here are my initial reactions, for what it's worth:

1) The speech as performance: I honestly did not think it was among his best. Obama impressed me tremendously on the campaign trail, but this one left me a bit flat emotionally. I think that's because as President he felt obligated to touch some bases that he doesn't feel particularly passionate about. I know he was trying for FDR or even Reagan, but it just didn't seem to connect as well as he usually does....

At that, it was better than any speech but one (right after 9/11) that Dubya gave in eight years, and better than a lot of Bubba's early efforts.

2) The issues within the speech: not surprisingly, little focus on foreign affairs, but I didn't really expect one. The real question is whether the three themes of education, health care, and energy will actually be the touchstones of his administration or disappear like Whip Inflation Now. I'm not thinking in terms of the particulars of any plan Obama might have (I'll probably disagree with him on many if not most of the details), but on the larger general perception of whether he is reacting to events or imposing his will on them. That's in large measure why FDR and Reagan were perceived as successful, when LBJ--despite all of his genuine accomplishment--wasn't. Obama's first big act was to respond to an economic crisis forced on him by circumstances; most of his foreign policy choices over the next year are likely to be reactive rather than pro-active. I think the intent of this speech was to lay out his agenda as opposed to his reactions to situations.

His three signature issues are traditional political issues; the question here will be what he proposes that is new, and the extent to which he can control the narrative (God, I hate writing that) on each of those issues for the next year. Clinton essentially handed the GOP the Congress in 1994 by losing the narrative on health care; that's the political challenge for Obama.

Of the three, I thought his rhetoric on health care was weakest in terms of emotional connection, that his words on education were effective but not necessarily memorable, and that his performance on energy was the best of the lot. But in all of that I don't think--though I may certainly be proven wrong--I heard a really effective battle cry. The line about dropping out being contextualized as giving up on your country was a pretty good sound bite, but I have to wonder seriously if drop-outs give a rat's butt about giving up on their country. I think it was pitched to the wrong audience.

All that being said, as a politician I give the President full points on two issues: he wasn't the first African-American President in front of Congress last night. He was just the President. And that's to the good.

Second point; he obviously understands the need for people to see him out front, in charge, and talking about the issues. He's so far evidenced a politician's innate understanding of the bully pulpit.

Here's the question that bedeviled Bubba for eight years, however: Will he know when it's time to shut up?

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