'We Are Not Quitters'
It was a moment that Franklin D. Roosevelt would have savored in 1933, at the depth of the Great Depression — the president gesturing to the gallery of the House of Representatives and quoting a high school student from South Carolina: “We are not quitters.”
No, sir! No way. Not Tuesday night. For the first time in his presidency, Barack Obama was truly presidential, finding a language and a cadence to speak to a country that has become paralyzed by the economic decline.
Before the speech, even the nation’s most tough-minded investors were saying that the best hope for the economy was that Obama would sprinkle some political magic. His policies hadn’t stemmed the decline; the massive $787 stimulus package was criticized even by its supporters as a grab-bag, and his financial recovery plan sent the stock market plummeting. But perhaps the president, the Orator in Chief, could turn it around.
The big asset in our depleted national bank right now is Obama himself. And to this listener, at least, he delivered a big tranche of what the bankers and boardroom titans have failed to provide over the past year, which is leadership. That won’t be enough to offset all the bad news that’s still ahead, but it was a start.
It was a strong, ambitious speech, important not just for what Obama said but for what he still has in reserve in terms of leadership and rhetorical power. After eight years of botched words and shrugs and smirks, we have a president who can harness the English language and use it speak to a frightened country. He had his priorities sharply focused Tuesday night: energy, health care, education, fiscal discipline — the same themes he kept pushing on the campaign trail, but now it is for real.
On health care, Obama practically shouted it out: “Let there be no doubt: health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year.” The Republicans have to be thinking: Whoa! We’re going to get rolled. They had to wonder, listening to the speech, whether obstructionism would prove to be good politics, after all.
The fact is that Obama’s leadership gifts are the country’s best bet right now. The financial system is like a kid frightened of the dark, lacking the confidence to do the most basic things. Meanwhile, the manufacturing sector is facing a world of collapsing demand, with consumers frightened to buy anything but next week’s groceries. The panic that has gripped Wall Street for a year has finally hit Main Street, hard, and the economy is falling faster than even the pessimists could have imagined.
Against this background of gathering anxiety, Obama delivered his message: “We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.” The policies don’t yet match that rhetoric. They’re still too incremental, reactive and ad-hoc — an awkward melding of Larry Summers and Nancy Pelosi. But you had the feeling Tuesday night that Obama’s team is at least on the learning curve.
The odd thing about leadership, especially when it comes to economic issues, is that it’s a confidence game. To make this recovery happen, you gotta believe. That act of belief is fragile, especially when the economy is still heading down and hasn’t yet hit bottom. But Tuesday night, Obama was able to speak directly to the American people, powerfully and passionately, at the beginning of what will be a nightmare year. That’s a big plus for a frightened nation.
The Republicans had new reason to be worried after the speech; the public had new reason to be hopeful.
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