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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."

By Ben Pershing  |  January 28, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Rundown  
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Next: Obama brings jobs message to Tampa, will announce $8 billion for high-speed rail


Wiggle room is important to a person that has no intention to keep their word.

Posted by: RayOne | January 30, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

For those of you who say "Lobbyists have created a climate of corruption in our government," you need to understand something. In order for a lobbyist to be effective there has to be someone on the receiving end of the lobbyist's persuasive efforts (whether those efforts be monetary, verbal, or otherwise) and that person must be POSITIVELY RECEPTIVE AND RESPONSIVE to said efforts. The culture of corruption was created by politicians who have no integrity, who think that they are above the law, who think that their constituents are worthy of nothing more than being ignored, and who think that it's perfectly acceptable to sell their vote. Eliminate those people and the lobbyists will dry up and blow away because their effectiveness will be reduced to nothing. Do I think you'll be able to get rid of all corrupt politicians? Of course not. Which means that there will always be lobbyists. Get over it.

As for Obama extending the olive branch, I recall John McCain obtaining then Senator Obama's assurance of support for a piece of legislation some years ago, only to see the weak-kneed Obama yank it away when it came time to vote. We saw how Obama did business then and I've seen no improvement in his credibility since then. Obama has an exactly ZERO historical record of being a 'pass it for the good of the country aisle-crossing, bi-partisan uniter.' If anything, he's been just the opposite. I wouldn't trust Obama as far as I could throw him and I will fully support any politician who chooses not to.

Posted by: flintston | January 29, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Republicans hate the president because he is honest and for the people of this country and not out to use the American people for a buck.

Lobbyist have created a climate of corruption in our government. It is a goverment out for their own profit and the heck with the American people as we work to pay taxes to keep them rich. Their yearly salaries are not enough money to live so high as they do. We won't have health care because the health care companies paid out billions to stop it. Look around--hospitals and building growing in leaps and bounds --they are hurting. Were the republicans able to take out their investments before the bank failure? Were they forewarned and did lobbyist take care of them so they would not lose money.

Wake up people we have fallen under a lying republican dictatorship who demand the government go back to its corruption. They fight hard to turn the country against an articulate intelligent president who is for the people of this country. And I may add of the opinion many do not deserve him.

Posted by: mac7 | January 29, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Youtube JFK SOTU 1961. Amazing similarities, although President Obama is actually a BETTER speaker and even better able to articulate what the United States stands for, and how the US government must be the advocate FOR the people it represents. He is undoubtedly a once in a lifetime politcal leader. It is why republicons hate him so much. They hated Clinton for similar reasons, but President Obama is already making Bill look like a school boy. I have never seen anyone in my lifetime who looked more liek the physical embodiment of the presidency than him last night. Kennedy was murdered two weeks before my birth. He also had that look, as did FDR, TR. No way to really know with Lincoln and Washington, but one assumes they had that same steadfastness and ability to chide and lead without bullying. A really remarkable personality.

Posted by: John1263 | January 28, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

It was by far the best SOTU I have ever seen. no doubt the pubbies are upset because he called them out on their obstructionism. If they do nothing, if they block the incentives he has alid out -- and that he pointed out again and again have lalready passed the House-- it is their failure and they will get the blame. He is doubling down on their game of chicken.

LOVED that he scolded the extremist gang of five on SCOTUS. Their actions are the greatest threat to our republic since the British burned DC in the War of 1812.

Posted by: John1263 | January 28, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse


83% of speech watchers approve of the proposals the president made in his speech tonight. 17% Disapprove.
70% of speech watchers think Barack Obama shares the same priorities for the country as they do. 57% thought so before the speech.

The Washington (wingnut) Post is more and more just TMZ-style reporting, with no real analysis or substance.

Do some homework, reporters!

Posted by: losthorizon10 | January 28, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I find it interesting that only 48% of the viewers agreed with President Obama. Which is down 20 points from the 68% from the February 24 speech.

Posted by: guitarplye1090 | January 28, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

The President is an utter Blow Hard! The guy is amazing; hasn't listened to the American people one iota this past year, not even after the massacre in Massachusetts last week. He brings up "Transparency" during his pep rally and I almost fell off the chair laughing so hard, using the old campaign line we will put up the earmarks on our website. The American people don't want government run healthcare, Obama needs to borrow Rush Limbaughs hearing aids. Its truly amazing, Obama has to be the biggest self centered egotistical myopic president this country has ever had. Oh, to continue the humor Obama blames the GOP for the healthcare failure but it was he, Pelosi and REid who have been conducting closed door back room meetings and deals without the GOP. I know your the ruling party and have every right to do so, but don't lay blame on them when you don't include them in your scheme's. This speech was made for Comedy Central! America is in Trouble (with a big T).

Posted by: Dimag | January 28, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

Hey scrivener - regarding your cogent, on-topic comment - I love the way you cite yourself citing yourself. Isnn't that a bit loopy?

Posted by: polarbear3 | January 28, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

A very credible speech. My reaction about half way through an annotated replay in NYTimes Online: Something every single democrat and republican member of congress needs to read and heed. Once a month as a reminder. There's very little not covered and dealt with at a high level as far as I'm concerned.

If you're even slightly interested in or care about political issues, this is an excellent place to get a foundation perspective from which to call, write, or other wise communication with the inside-the-beltway crowd who have figured out how to piss us off. It's also a good place to assess candidates for office and decide who to vote for.

Something else of great value to me, is the Times use of a new reporting tool. I went looking around this morning for a copy of the speech or a transcript. Preferably a transcript because I wanted to read what the man had to say. When it comes to making my mind up about something, I want direct exposure to facts. What somebody said or what they wrote that I can read or listen and understand as a first order on a path to figuring out what I think it means. Then deciding what, if anything, to do or say in response.

This application has to be an example of the unfolding transformation of how "News" will be gathered and reported as the internet continues to transform our way of life.

Check it out: An annotated video and transcript of President Obama’s speech or copy and past into your browser:

BE FOREWARNED -it is over an hour long. But you can pause and get a cup of coffee or go to the loo and then return. Hope the Times keeps it on their front page as a reference and resource.

The Times recently announced that they will begin charging for access to their site in 2011. If this is the mechanism that they will use to produce content, then I would be inclined to support it.

Posted by: Huffman214 | January 28, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

President Obama again said he has banned torture. But Homeland operatives defy him.


• Regional Homeland Security- administered fusion centers use a nationwide microwave/laser electromagnetic radiation "directed energy" weapon system to silently torture, impair, subjugate unconstitutionally "targeted" Americans and their families -- an American genocide hiding in plain sight.

• Victims' own cell phones may be used to target them.

• How a young FBI agent's 'I believe you' gave victim the faith to go public.

For the full story:
OR (see "stories" list).


• Homeland multi-agency "fusion center" network: "Ground Zero for Homeland domestic torture"

Posted by: scrivener50 | January 28, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

I do not agree with Barack Obama on a lot, but I will give him credit for a speech last night which had a far higher degree of candor and reality than most Presidents of late have made in their State of the Unions addresses which has become more theatre than a realistic status report.

Most of the instant analysis and punditry noted in this article falls along predicatble political and idealogical lines. While our President was calling for a greater degree of compromise and collaboration from all in his speech, most of the attendees couldn't get out of the room fast enough to begin spinning their reaction to an eagerly waiting press corp which is more than ready to print whatever is said regardless of whether or not it makes sense.

Posted by: bobfbell | January 28, 2010 8:56 AM | Report abuse

I find it interesting that none of the commentors you sight picked-up on the beginning of his speech where he compared where we were last year compared to where we are now. It is too easy to let the GOP ignore how badly they screwed things up and now act like they had nothing to do with the mess they left behind from their 8 years in charge. Also, the fact that 69 percent of those polled had at least a somewhat positive reaction is really quite an accomplishment given the mood of the country right now. I also note there is little said about his mention that government, business and the MEDIA have culpability for the mood of the country. I could not agree more.

Posted by: cdierd1944 | January 28, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

The speech means nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

Posted by: nychap44 | January 28, 2010 8:38 AM | Report abuse

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