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A good speech that needs a good follow-through


The build-up to tonight's State of the Union -- on this blog as well as many others -- was that this was a make-or-break speech for the president. The drama of the occasion mixed with the gravity of the times implied a somber, determined address. That's not what Obama gave. His tone, instead, was jaunty, confident, and light. He told corny jokes. He ribbed the Republicans. He invited congressional leadership to come hang at the White House. Towards the end, you expected him to say, "thanks, folks, I'll be here all term!" and then give Joe Biden a chest bump on his way off stage.

Obama's speech was an effort to set the narrative on Obama's first year, not respond to it. The long litany of efforts and achievements, the easy rhythm, the list of policies for 2010, the reselling of policies that have held over from 2009 -- the speech felt like the summary of a successful year, not an attempt to claw out of a crisis. And in that, it worked, or at least it worked for me. The best defense is not being on defense, or something like that.

The longer-term political project was to put Obama on the side of those who are disgusted by Washington rather than letting him become one of the reasons people are disgusted by Washington. Obama spoke of "the deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works," and Congress's "credibility gap." He hammered the Supreme Court for inviting corporations to consume our politics and lamented the tendency to treat "every day [as] Election Day." He 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," and then told Republicans that if they insist on filibustering everything, then Scott Brown's election means "the responsibility to govern is now yours as well."

But the State of the Union only comes once a year. And it's hard to imagine voters buying Obama's narrative of progress and achievement unless they see, well, some progress and some achievements. Obama made a strong statement in favor of health-care reform, but he didn't call on the House to pass the Senate bill, or the Senate to pass modifications, or for any alternative path to be followed. Success here will be measured not in reactions to the speech, but in the outcome of the effort. So too with the section on the economy, which sounded convincing, but will matter a lot less than the unemployment rate eight months from now.

All in all, it was a good speech. But it was a good speech because it told the story of a good presidency and an able president. I expect Obama's poll numbers will be up for a few days, but if he wants them to remain there, he needs events to bear out his narrative. And that starts with passing the health-care reform bill.

Photo credit: Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post Photo.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 27, 2010; 10:58 PM ET
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: The State of the Union: Just the policy
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"The best defense is not being on defense, or something like that"

This is very true. While I enjoyed on the Republicans looking grim and unimpressed by everything Obama had to say, I thought it was a good speech. And not being on defense was smart. Still, enough there for Republicans to make hay.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 27, 2010 11:57 PM | Report abuse

I predict that is just what will happen.
A few hours before the SOTU,Nancy Pelosi said she has the votes for the two-step passing of the Senate bill. So tonight, I bet he accomplished what a President and leader of his party is supposed to do, inspire and shape up the members when they are running around as if the sky is falling. And encourage the people when they are struggling (fireside chat).
Is Pass the Damn Bill non-movement, movement working?? One can surely...hope.

Posted by: dcunning1 | January 28, 2010 12:21 AM | Report abuse

the best part of the evening was the first moment.
the past few weeks have been battering for the president. after all of the setbacks with healthcare, and a year that would have driven most human beings to complete exhaustion, he had a well-earned rest in hawaii, which occurred at the same time as the incident on the plane...and since the new year, he has been ceaselessly battered by his opponents and his supporters.
and yet, with all of the immense pressure that tonight was the defining moment of his presidency, walking into a room where his opponents sat like lifeless mummies..and the pundits were already pouncing on his speech before he even delivered it,he came forward with a beautiful, incandescent smile.
who would have expected such a smile as that?
if he could smile that genuine, good-natured, warm smile at a moment like that, well, that says a whole lot about his good spirit and soul. the ability to smile warmly in the face of such high stakes, ill will and contentiousness...knowing the vast audience he was quite remarkable.
not many people smile great big smiles anymore....and that was a deeply heartening and beautiful moment.

Posted by: jkaren | January 28, 2010 12:36 AM | Report abuse

I did not watch the speech on purpose (basically with the view that just a good speech is not enough) and then read it carefully.

I think Ezra is right is here, President is trying to make a case for independents or supporters who have become disgruntled by now on him (I can be counted in that). It is simple, clean and rightful politics - try to get back Independent voters who crossed from Obama Democratic Party to Anti-Obama Tea Party. It was that transparent effort. First of all that is a right direction and it was a good attempt.

I think he elaborated economic situation quite a bit, but he could have been even more dramatic / blunt in that department.

About HCR - it is fine that he did not talk about any specific 'tactics' to be used. That is not the place and at least in a speech he has to continue to invite GOP members.

Finally, the narrative that we are facing grave issues and here is a President who would like to be as open and transparent about that with some common sense solutions; is generally a good narrative.

As Ezra says, this is a good start and now hopefully the narrative starts gaining some flesh as Admin and Congress actually executes on many of the claims in this speech.

Posted by: umesh409 | January 28, 2010 12:37 AM | Report abuse

I thought it was a good speech, he stated his case clearly, forcefully, and, with the exception of the spending freeze nonsense, hit on some policy points that I think most people on the left will like. But as you say, the SOTU comes once a year.

Obama can't make policy on his own, but he can do a lot about leading policy and public opinion. I think he did a lot on that front this evening, the question is if he'll follow it up with the kind of leadership he showed tonight.

Posted by: Matt40 | January 28, 2010 1:06 AM | Report abuse

Obama did what I wanted him to do. He was strong. Not too defensive. Relaxed. Confident. Just what a jittery America needs right now. But Ezra is right. The proof is in the action. We'll see what happens on health reform now that he has said he wants the Congress to "finish the job."

Posted by: LindaB1 | January 28, 2010 1:09 AM | Report abuse

He has to hit the campaign trail again. The window is small so he should act fast. And hcr has to pass. The group of people with which I watched the speech loved it. They are Obama fans but they are also among his harshest reasonable critics. They loved the fighting spirit. He has to keep that going.

Posted by: eRobin1 | January 28, 2010 8:53 AM | Report abuse

Always a great speaker. But we've heard speeches before with little or no action so I'll wait until he proves it thank you. I also find it interesting that he SAYS he wants to reach out to Republicans and will accept ideas on healthcare yet he has not accepted much of anything they've requested (tort reform, selling across state lines etc). Again all talk, let's see some action on that front. ALso interesting how he said we need to work together etc out one side of his mouth but the other side he blamed Republican's for the failed economy of the last 8 years (even though Dems have had congressional control for 4+ years and counting. I'm betting the over/under for the "Its Bush's fault" to stop is about 10 years. Its nice to SAY we're all Americans but it rings immensely hollow unless you stop with the rhetoric that continued. I'm sure his poll numbers are and will go up a bit but then will settle back but again who cares about poll numbers. Its about jobs (where it should have been in 2009). I'm anxious to see if his meeting regularly with Republicans (a good idea) actually results in anything substantial or just another Democratic talking point. Pass the senate HCR bill and move onto jobs otherwise its the same old song and dance.

Posted by: visionbrkr | January 28, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse

The speech opens up another small "window of opportunity" for the Democrats to redeem themselves and prove they can govern, and in turn make the political landscape more favorable: pass the senate hcr bill, improve it in reconciliation as Ezra suggests with a few simple things that will help a lot of people (Medicare at 55, increase Medicaid to 200% of poverty etc); act strongly and boldly (and immediately) on jobs and the economy; and follow through on other issues such as DADT. If we do, the base and more independents will come back and the Dems should be able to keep control of both houses in this fall's elections. This should be a no-brainer for the Democrats in Congress. What is good policy is also good politics in this instance..... so let's not squander this "last chance".

Posted by: awood3 | January 28, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

Just looking at all those grim old white guys in suits on the Repug side gave me renewed hope for the Democratic party. Demographic trends are just not in the favor of a party that doesn't include women and people of different ethnicities and backgrounds.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | January 28, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

A question I would like to keep inserting into the narrative, when money to businesses and financials is touted as the solution, is to ask, "Tell me -- what percentage of your customer base has no income?"

Of course, the correct answer is zero. People without income are not customers. Business (and employment) can't recover without people who have disposable $$$ in their pockets.


Posted by: NoniMausa | January 28, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Suppose he had been giving speeches right along instead of being so passive. Would the media narrative have been dominated by what he said, or by tea baggers and death panels as it was?

I'm seeing a pattern here, starting during the campaign. He only bothers to try to build a constituency for anything when he is in deep trouble. He views it as a way to save your bacon, not a way to push your policy forward.

Posted by: pj_camp | January 28, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

I agree--good speech. It was even great, at times.

The very, very cynical Republican husband, who'd all but given up on this White House, said he was impressed: "He gets it," he remarked.

I know everyone and his uncle is going on about how these are just words, what about action, but you know, that's what a *speech* is: words.

I was especially happy to hear the combat-troops-out-of-Iraq-by-August declaration; I was thrilled that he promised to put an end to DADT; I thought the President's overall tone and attitude were pitch-perfect.

That said, I wanted more nuts and bolts on health care. And insofar as the executive office can lead and initiate, if not actually legislate, I very much want to know exactly what he plans to do in re: the recent SCOTUS ruling.

Bravo, President Obama. Now lets get the country working again, in every sense.

Posted by: litbrit | January 28, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Did anyone else hear a slam on the Senate in the speech? I think there were at least 4 times he mentioned that the House had passed what he was talking about, and he mentioned the 60 vote issue (when talking to the Rep side).

Posted by: rpy1 | January 28, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

"Damning with faint praise..." Yep, definitely heard the slam on the Senate, as he singled out the House accomplishments. Personally, I thought it was very effective.

Posted by: realityexists | January 28, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

"But it was a good speech because it told the story of a good presidency and an able president."

A good presidency? An able president? Does the worship of this guy on the left ever end? The only thing this guy has done his entire term that is even noteworthy is give speeches. No one can point to even one concrete accomplishment. The only thing we hear from Obama sycophants, when asked why he is so great, is a list of speeches.

How pathetic. And the following quote from a commenter proves my point:

"Suppose he had been giving speeches right along instead of being so passive."

That is all he has done. And that quote points out exactly my point. All his supporters can point to for his accomplishments is speeches. Evidently if he had given more speeches (never mind the fact he has given more in the past year than any first year president ever) we would not have 10% unemployment or we wouldn't be mocked for our pathetically craven foreign policy.

The presidency is more than just going on TV and giving a speech in an attempt to revive sagging poll numbers.

Posted by: Bob65 | January 28, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

"I expect Obama's poll numbers will be up for a few days, but if he wants them to remain there, he needs events to bear out his narrative. And that starts with passing the health-care reform bill."

Firstly, you should read the analysis at which demonstrates that the whole post-state of the union bounce is a non-existent myth.

Secondly, when are you and other kool-aid drinkers going to realize that the reason Obama is where he is in the polls is because he kept pushing health care that people don't want and ignored everything else? Your prescription for elevating his poll numbers is to do more of the same? Give me a break. Are you ever going to acknowledge that the bill is unpopular and the public doesn't want it, or are you going to keep insisting that the political class knows what is best and should ram the thing down the throats of the public?

As for the woman who claims that her Obama-hating husband said "he gets it" in response to the speech, I think we have found a perfect candidate for the column that appeared (or used to) in the New Yorker that was devoted entirely to obviously fake quotes attributed to people.

Posted by: Bob65 | January 28, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

"Just looking at all those grim old white guys in suits on the Repug side gave me renewed hope for the Democratic party. Demographic trends are just not in the favor of a party that doesn't include women and people of different ethnicities and backgrounds."

Tell me again, how many minority Democrats are in the Senate?

As for demographics, didn't the Massachusetts election teach you people that individuals will vote against the incompetent party, regardless of race, color, ideology, etc. Assuming someone will vote Democrat because they are hispanic or a woman is racist and sexist condescenion at its highest. The whole "demographics is destiny" arguments have been destroyed so many times, I can't believe so many people bring it up still.

PS What is with the left's obsession with race?

Posted by: Bob65 | January 28, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

"And in that, it worked, or at least it worked for me.'

He could have gotten up there and read the New York City phonebook and you would be telling us it worked.

Posted by: Bob65 | January 28, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

You have not commented upon his attack on the supreme court. Even the NYT acknowledges that his talk about contributions from foreign entities shows that he hasn't read the court decision, or is trying to mislead the public about it. It was a sleazy moment -- very banana republic.

Posted by: truck1 | January 28, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

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