Reaction to State of the Union: Obama's pleas draw mixed reviews
By Ben Pershing
Was President Obama's State of the Union address feisty or conciliatory? Did he reiterate the case for a liberal agenda, or move toward the middle? And was it enough to cure his political ills and those of his fellow Democrats?
Not surprisingly, on the morning after there is little consensus on the answers to those questions. "Obama used his first State of the Union speech Wednesday to try to hit the reset button on health care and to offer a hodgepodge of tax breaks and other incentives to create new jobs," ledes the Associated Press, while a separate piece from Ron Fournier says "Obama checked every political box needed to restart his troubled presidency Wednesday night, but that may not be enough to consider his State of Union address a success." Under the headline, "Obama to Party: Don't 'Run for the Hills," the New York Times writes that Obama used the night "to chastise Republicans for working in lock-step against him and to warn Democrats to stiffen their political spines." The Washington Post says that the president "reframed his agenda around a single, central mission: continuing the nation's delicate economic recovery," while the Washington Times notes he "repackaged his push for health care reform and much of the rest of his priorities as means to boost the economy."
The analysis pieces focus on Obama's attempts to dig out from his political hole, and his nods toward centrism. Reuters says he "needed to reassert his leadership and take back control of the political agenda" but "it may take until November, when mid-term elections could change the balance of power in the U.S. Congress, to show whether he will have succeeded." Politico judges he "tacked to the right with appeals for tax cuts for small business and new investments in off-shore oil drilling and nuclear power. He tacked to the left with renewed vows to let gays serve in the military and to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. ... In a favorable light, his State of the Union speech may have revealed the mind of a leader who has never cared much about traditional ideological categories. ... Less charitably, the address could be interpreted as the work of a president who is desperately improvising by touching every political erogenous zone he and his advisers can think of." The Los Angeles Times says Obama made "an unusually candid attempt to recapture the magic of his first months in office -- an effort to remind Americans why they admired him in January 2009, and to persuade them to feel that way again. ... Yet even as he laid out an agenda sure to create further friction, Obama offered few concrete suggestions on how the warring parties in Congress could reconcile."
Gerald Seib notes Obama's message to Republicans: "You have taken back enough power to block me, but in turn you will have to share the blame if nothing happens in Washington this year. That represents a pretty obvious effort to turn the president's big liability of the hour--his loss of a controlling super-majority in the Senate--into an asset." Joe Klein was a fan: "It was a terrific performance. He almost seemed to be having fun up there; he delivered the speech in a free, almost informal manner. It was easily digestible, user-friendly ... but it was also a fighting speech. ... That said, the substance of the speech wasn't spectacular. The new proposals were modest. ... But in the end--the very end--the eloquence and sense of purpose was riveting." Howard Fineman thought "as a piece of politics, it was nothing short of masterful."
Jonathan Chait found the address dull: "When he declared, 'health care experts who know our system best consider this approach a vast improvement over the status quo,' I wondered if his budget freeze had already claimed the entire White House speechwriting staff." Michael Gerson says that an hour into the speech, he "gave up hoping that it might eventually build toward something remotely interesting," but said that didn't matter, because "Obama's primary problem is not rhetorical ... Obama has a reality problem." Peter Wehner doesn't mince words: "Obama's State of the Union address should unnerve Democrats in Congress and throughout the country. It was one of the worst State of the Union addresses in modern times - a stunning thing for a man who won the presidency in large measure based on the power and uplift of his rhetoric."
How'd it play beyond the Beltway? CNN's instapoll found "48 percent of speech watchers had a very positive reaction, with three in 10 saying they had a somewhat positive response and 21 percent with a negative response. The 48 percent ... is down 20 points from the 68 percent of speech watchers who felt the same way a year ago about the president's February 24 prime time address to a joint session of Congress." CBS' survey had better news for Obama: "83 percent said they approved of the proposals the President made. Just 17 percent disapproved. ... However, a sizable 57 percent said the President will not be able to accomplish all of the goals he set out in his speech. Most Democrats who viewed the speech (63 percent) said the man they elected would be able to accomplish all of his goals, but only 11 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of independent voters agreed." (The polling gods will strike us down if we don't stipulate that such instant surveys, while interesting, have little scientific value.)
One audience member who did not react well at all was Samuel Alito, who could be seen mouthing "not true" when Obama criticized last week's Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United campaign finance case. On the bright side for Alito, his complaint was seen but not heard. Just imagine if Joe Wilson had chosen to whisper last September. Aside from Alito, the Wall Street Journal notes "Republicans were on conspicuously good behavior. They frequently joined Democrats in standing ovations, and if they disagreed with a point Mr. Obama was making, at most they remained seated without verbalizing their dissent." Time observes that "Obama spoke the first 676 words of his State of the Union Address Wednesday night before the first hand clap. His tone was so somber, and the room's mood so grave, that no one moved when Obama said, 'We must answer history's call.' There were no ovations when he called for 'Democrats and Republicans to work through our differences, to overcome the numbing weight of our problems.' He got no love for saying, 'the worst of the storm has passed.'" Politico talks to body-language experts, who thought Vice President Biden "showed how much he respects" Obama while Nancy Pelosi "appeared uncomfortable."
So what's next? The New York Times writes that "after spending 2009 emphasizing that a health care overhaul was his top domestic priority, Mr. Obama gave it much less prominence in his address. He did not mention it until more than half an hour in -- a sign of how imperiled the bill has become. ... Mr. Obama's speech did nothing to resolve differences between the House and the Senate or to clarify the way forward." Politico says Obama offered Congress "words of encouragement but little else --no concrete plan to jump-start progress on a bill, no timeline for getting it done and no guidance on what he wants to see in what was once his top legislative initiative." Roll Call notes Obama "urged lawmakers in both parties to 'take another look at the plan we've proposed.' Members interpreted that statement very differently." Jonathan Cohn puts it in perspective: "If you follow health care reform, you probably want to know if President Obama saved health care reform with his State of the Union address. The answer is no. But that's only because there's no way he could save it with just one speech. It's too big a job. All Obama could do Wednesday night was to send some messages, about his expectations and priorities. And there I think he did pretty much what he needed to do."
January 28, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories: The Rundown
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