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Exorcising Bush's Ghost

By Dan Froomkin
12:08 PM ET, 02/25/2009


Obama addresses Congress last night. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Simply by being there, President Obama and Vice President Biden created powerful imagery of change at last night's joint session of Congress. There was no Dick Cheney skulking over the president's right shoulder. Gone was the tongue-tied Texan staring blankly into the TelePrompter, replaced by a commanding and self-possessed African-American Democrat. And up there in the first lady's box? A radiant black woman.

But sometimes bygones won't be bygones.

Indeed, absolutely central to Obama's argument last night for his massive economic recovery package and his hugely ambitious plans in the areas of energy, health and education was his conclusion that the previous administration so utterly failed to rise to the challenges facing the nation that we are now facing "a day of reckoning."

Here's the transcript, as delivered.

Obama went into last night's address with enormous popular support. But he still needed to turn the country's faith in him into faith in his far-reaching agenda. To fully make the case for such dramatic action, he had to more clearly explain his thought process.

He did that in three fundamental steps. First, by describing the profound irresponsibility that brought us here in the first place. Then by reminding us that the American government has a history of achieving greatness in times of crisis. Then by hearkening to this country's indomitable spirit. It was a potent combination.

And that first part amounted to possibly the most damning summary of the Bush legacy yet.

"The fact is, our economy did not fall into decline overnight. Nor did all of our problems begin when the housing market collapsed or the stock market sank," Obama said. "We have known for decades that our survival depends on finding new sources of energy, yet we import more oil today than ever before. The cost of health care eats up more and more of our savings each year, yet we keep delaying reform. Our children will compete for jobs in a global economy that too many of our schools do not prepare them for. And though all of these challenges went unsolved, we still managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our government, than ever before.

"In other words, we have lived through an era where too often short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity, where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election. A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations -- regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market. People bought homes they knew they couldn't afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway. And all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day.

"Well, that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here.

"Now is the time to act boldly and wisely, to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity."

Since the day after the election, Obama has been accused of overreaching. But in what I consider the second major part of his central argument, he argued that now is not the time to think small:

"I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves, that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity, for history tells a different story," he said. "History reminds us that, at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry. From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age. In the wake of war and depression, the G.I. Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history. And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world.

"In each case, government didn't supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise. It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive.

"We are a nation that has seen promise amid peril and claimed opportunity from ordeal. Now we must be that nation again.

"That is why, even as it cuts back on programs we don't need, the budget I submit will invest in the three areas that are absolutely critical to our economic future: energy, health care, and education."

And Obama made the third part of his central argument with the help of a Skutnik -- one of the carefully-selected guests in the first lady's box that presidents have held out as examples to the nation ever since Ronald Reagan in 1982 lauded Lenny Skutnik, the government worker who weeks before had leapt into the icy Potomac River to rescue a survivor of an Air Florida crash.

Obama's chief Skutnik was Ty'Sheoma Bethea, an eighth-grade student from a crumbling junior high school in South Carolina.

"She had been told that her school is hopeless," Obama explained. "But the other day after class, she went to the public library and typed up a letter to the people sitting in this chamber. She even asked her principal for the money to buy a stamp.

"The letter asks us for help and says, 'We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself, and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina, but also the world. We are not quitters.'

"That's what she said: 'We are not quitters.' These words -- (APPLAUSE.) These words and these stories tell us something about the spirit of the people who sent us here. They tell us that, even in the most trying times, amid the most difficult circumstances, there is a generosity, a resilience, a decency, and a determination that perseveres, a willingness to take responsibility for our future and for posterity.

"Their resolve must be our inspiration. Their concerns must be our cause. And we must show them and all our people that we are equal to the task before us."

Of his three major priorities, Obama was most emphatic about health care. Almost shouting, he declared: "[L]et there be no doubt: Health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year."

He also responded to several populist concerns about his financial rescue plan.

Notably, he placed a good deal of distance between himself and how the Bush administration apportioned the first chunk of bailout money: "Now, I understand that when the last administration asked this Congress to provide assistance for struggling banks, Democrats and Republicans alike were infuriated by the mismanagement and the results that followed. So were the American taxpayers; so was I.

"So I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now, especially when everyone is suffering in part from their bad decisions. I promise you: I get it. But I also know that, in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger or yield to the politics of the moment."

He vowed: "This time -- this time, CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks, or buy fancy drapes, or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over."

And he offered one big reason to discount the largely negative judgment of Wall Street on his bank rescue plan thus far: "I understand that, on any given day, Wall Street may be more comforted by an approach that gives bank bailouts with no strings attached and that holds nobody accountable for their reckless decisions, but such an approach won't solve the problem."

Obama defended his anti-foreclosure plan, alluding to the fact that it won't cover investors or people who can't make even reduced payments: "It's a plan that won't help speculators or that neighbor down the street who bought a house he could never hope to afford, but it will help millions of Americans who are struggling with declining home values, Americans who will now be able to take advantage of the lower interest rates that this plan has already helped to bring about."

And he identified some modest cuts he intends to make in his budget, including "direct payments to large agribusinesses that don't need them," "no-bid contracts that have wasted billions in Iraq," and "Cold War-era weapons systems we don't use."

He said he would raise taxes by ending tax breaks for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans: "Let me be absolutely clear, because I know you'll end up hearing some of the same claims that rolling back these tax breaks means a massive tax increase on the American people. If your family earns less than $250,000 a year, a quarter million dollars a year, you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime."

One of the biggest surprises of the night was his rousing call for individuals to pursue their schooling. "[D]ropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself; it's quitting on your country," he said, also asking "every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training."

He also asked Congress "to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution."

There were only a few lines in his speech that actively pit the two sides of the aisle against each other. One came when Obama spoke of the importance of drawing down the debt. Republicans cheered wildly. "See, I know we can get some consensus in here," Obama ad-libbed. But when he returned to his text -- saying "With the deficit we inherited..." -- it was the Democrats' turn to roar.

And rather than explicitly reaching out to Republicans on any particular issue, Obama chose instead to speak more generally about common ground: "I know that we haven't agreed on every issue thus far," he said. "There are surely times in the future where we will part ways. But I also know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed. I know that. That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months and where we return after those debates are done. That is the foundation on which the American people expect us to build common ground."

The Coverage and the Analysis

By Dan Froomkin
11:50 AM ET, 02/25/2009

Much of this morning's coverage of President Obama's address last night dwelled on his new balance between pessimism and optimism.

Michael D. Shear and Anne E. Kornblut write in The Washington Post: "President Obama offered a grim portrait of America's plight in an address to a joint session of Congress last night, but he promised to lead an economic renewal that would lift the country out of its current crisis without bankrupting its future.

"Striking an optimistic tone that has been absent from his speeches in recent weeks, the president said his stimulus plan, bank bailout proposal, housing programs and health-care overhaul would work in concert to turn around the nation's struggling economy. And while he bluntly described a country beset by historic economic challenges and continued threats abroad, he said the solution lies in directly confronting -- not ignoring -- those problems....

"After weeks of persistent questions about whether he had grown too downcast and pessimistic in describing the economic crisis to the American people, White House officials said Obama was seeking to strike an appropriate balance between hope -- the mantra of his campaign -- and realism in an era of serious problems."

Jonathan Weisman writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The speech, 52 minutes long, punctuated by more than 60 ovations, was billed as a rhetorical salve to a nation battered by layoffs and plunging stock prices -- and a tempering of pessimistic rhetoric from the Oval Office over the past few weeks.....

"It was a note he struck early in his address when he declared, to sustained applause from lawmakers, cabinet officials, military leaders and Supreme Court justices in the Capitol's packed House: 'While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken; though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.'"

Via U.S. News: "On ABC after the address... Jake Tapper called it 'the most positive speech that President Obama has given since election night'...

"On NBC, David Gregory also remarked on Obama's 'change in tone. The President, who warned of an economic crisis that would be so severe the country may not be able to recover prior to the stimulus plan being passed, now talks about an ability for the country to rebound and come back.'"

But some of the coverage focused more on the breadth of Obama's ambitions. Jeff Zeleny writes in the New York Times: "President Obama urged the nation on Tuesday to see the economic crisis as reason to raise its ambitions, calling for expensive new efforts to address energy, health care and education even as he warned that government bailouts have not come to an end...


"Mr. Obama mixed an acknowledgment of the depth of the economic problems with a Reaganesque exhortation to American resilience. He offered an expansive agenda followed by a pledge to begin paring an ever-climbing budget deficit."

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times: "The young new president projected a voice of generational confidence to a public that by one measure is less confident than at any other time since Mr. Obama was in grade school. He invested his popularity behind a plan that he said would not only 'restart the engine of our prosperity' but also transform the country with 'bold action and big ideas.'"

See my earlier post for the results from the instapolls. Here are some more news analyses and opinions:

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press: "President Barack Obama gave America the audacity to hope again.

"After describing the U.S. economy in nearly apocalyptic terms for weeks, pushing his $787 billion stimulus plan through Congress, the president used his address to Congress on Tuesday night to tap the deep well of American optimism — the never-say-die spirit that every president tries to capture in words. And great presidents embody....

"The themes of responsibility, accountability and, above all, national community rang throughout an address carefully balanced by the gravity of its times. Job losses. Home foreclosures. Credit crisis. Rising health care costs. Declining trust in government. Obama touched all those bases."

Steven Pearlstein wrote in The Washington Post that Obama "reinforced the image of a serious and purposeful leader who aims to rise above partisan sniping and neutralize much of the cynicism that has infected American politics. His critique of the failures of the past were powerful and unassailable. And while his program is certainly open to criticism, he made clear that he would rather engage critics than simply defeat them. He attempted to be the grown-up in the room, willing to accept responsibility and prodding others to do the same."

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe: "President Obama yesterday used the grandest stage of the presidency to reveal how he wants to be seen - as a realist, not an ideologue, as a figure of consensus, not the leader of a movement, as a hard worker grappling with problems, not a visionary seeking new horizons.

Steven Thomma notes for McClatchy Newspapers: "In a striking shift from the Bush era, Obama focused almost entirely on the economy, devoting only about six paragraphs near the end of the address to foreign policy and national security. He said that he'd announce soon his plans to withdraw combat troops from Iraq, reportedly by August 2010."

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "President Obama's message to the nation Tuesday night was plain and unequivocal: The era of bashing government is over. So, too, is the folklore of a marketplace capable of producing abundance without regulation, government oversight or public intervention. Addressing the deepest crisis of confidence in the market system since the Great Depression, Obama argued that the economic downturn, far from being an excuse for backing away from his ambitious plans, makes his proposals in health care, energy and education imperative....

"Tuesday night's speech was the most comprehensive manifesto he has offered yet for his new rendezvous with America's progressive tradition. 'We will rebuild,' he declared, 'we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.' If he is right, he will also have rebuilt American liberalism."

Columnist David Ignatius blogs for The Washington Post: "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....

"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."

But fellow columnist William Kristol blogs: "This was not the speech of a man who even contemplates the possibility of using force within the next year to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. This was not the speech of a man who thinks America needs to be reminded about the dangers out there in the world, because Americans might have to be summoned to deal with them. This was not the speech of a man who thinks of himself as a war president."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "If we have had doubts about the way President Obama has been handling the multitudinous disasters bequeathed to him by George W. Bush, starting with the cascading economic crisis, it was that we wanted to see more of Barack Obama the candidate in Barack Obama the president. He has not been assertive, ambitious, clear — or audacious — enough.

"Mr. Obama's first speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night was his chance to change that, and he rose to the occasion."

The Washington Post editorial board worries about overreaching: "We understand the president's instinct not to let short-term demands obscure the need to meet the country's long-term challenges. His priorities for fundamental reform, the causes that animated his campaign, are admirable ones. Yet we cannot help wondering: Isn't the most critical task to ensure a swift and effective response to the stomach-churning downturn? Does a new, understaffed administration have the capacity to try so much so fast? And does the political system have the bandwidth to accommodate all that Mr. Obama is asking from it?"

The TV pundits were largely complimentary.

David Gergen told CNN's Anderson Cooper: "[T]his was the most ambitious we have heard in this chamber in decades. The first half of the speech was FDR fighting for the New Deal. And the second half was Lyndon Johnson fighting for the Great Society. And we have never seen those two presidents rolled together in quite this way before.

"I mean, I think most people would have felt just trying to recover from this recession and stop don't flow of blood and get a recovery going would be enough for one president. He's saying, no, no, no, we're going to do health care reform this year."

Cooper: "And -- and he's saying that they're going to cut the deficit in half by --"

Gergen: "Do energy. We're going to do education. Thankfully, he's going to do national service. And we're going to cut the deficit."

Cooper: "Can he do that all?"

Gergen: "I think that's part of the drama of this presidency."

Howard Fineman told MSNBC's Keith Olberman: "That was as commanding performance, as confident a performance, as in control as I've ever seen a President."

Jeffrey Toobin told CNN: "I give him an A....His best moment yet as President — except he needs to get a tie which doesn't vibrate on television."

And was it good TV?

Baltimore Sun critic David Zurawik writes: "This is the first time that Obama has shown he can use TV not just to get elected, but also to govern. You can call it theater, because that's what it is. But that's still an important part of being President in the final days of this TV age. And nobody since Ronald Reagan in the 1980s has commanded the main stage like Obama did last night."

Washington Post critic Tom Shales seemed a bit bored: "His speeches will always make news, but the fact that he's a pretty great communicator is no longer a revelation. So after perfecting a style, and having given a speech last night that was full of practical content, there isn't much further he can go as a speechmaker. 'It is time for America to lead again,' he said, but hasn't he said that before? How many times can he say 'it's time' before it really is time? The honeymoon might go on, but if it turns out to be a case of too much talk and too little action, the great communal cry of national disappointment will be crushing, and cruel."

A Hit in the Instapolls

By Dan Froomkin
11:10 AM ET, 02/25/2009

President Obama's address to Congress was a hit in the instapolls.

Brian Montopoli writes for CBS News about theirs: "Eighty percent of speech watchers approve of President Obama's plans for dealing with the economic crisis. Before the speech, 63 percent approved.

"Fifty-one percent of speech watchers think the president's economic plans will help them personally. Thirty-six thought so before the speech.

"Seventy-five percent of speech watchers now say they were able to get a good understanding of President Obama's economic plans, compared to 58 percent before the speech."

http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/02/24/speech.poll/index.html
Paul Steinhauser reports for CNN that "two-thirds of those who watched President Barack Obama's address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night had a very positive reaction to his speech.

"Sixty-eight percent of speech-watchers questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey had a very positive reaction, with 24 percent indicating that they had a somewhat positive response and 8 percent indicating that they had a negative reaction....

"Eighty-two percent of speech-watchers said they support the economic plan Obama outlined in his prime time address, with 17 percent opposing the proposal.

Stan Greenberg's Democracy Corps reports on its research: "[I]In his speech to the nation tonight, Barack Obama managed to break through the partisan polarization of Washington and connect directly with American voters across the political spectrum according to dial and focus group research conducted during the speech. His speech inspired confidence in voters of all political stripes in his understanding of the challenges the country faces, as well as his agenda for the future....

"What was most striking about the reaction of these voters was the lack of polarization. In past State of the Union speeches and other major presidential addresses we have tested, voters from the opposite party of the president tend to have a knee-jerk negative reaction, generally rating his words less favorably and moving below 50 on our dial scale of 0 to 100. That was not the case with Obama's speech. Republicans rarely dropped below 50 and even exceeded 70 during parts of the President's speech.

"Most importantly, for most of the speech the dial lines for Democrats, Republicans and Independents moved in concert in a way we have rarely seen. While the partisan lines did diverge on a couple of important issues – including Obama's economic recovery plan, health care, and government regulation – they mostly showed a unified, national response in favor of the President's agenda. At times, it seemed as if Obama was deliberately speaking past his audience in the divided House chamber and offering a broader appeal to American voters hungry to move past partisan squabbling. That appeal clearly connected with these voters."

Obama's Lunch With the Anchors

By Dan Froomkin
11:05 AM ET, 02/25/2009

In what's become a White House tradition, the president had lunch with television anchors on the day of his annual address to Congress.

Steve Krakauer reports for TV Newser that the guest list "consisted of ABC's Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, CBS' Katie Couric and Bob Schieffer, NBC's Brian Williams and David Gregory, CNN's Wolf Blitzer and John King and FNC's Bret Baier and Chris Wallace."

Only some details emerged.

King reported for CNN: "Over lunch of lobster bisque and striped bass, it was a chance for the president to share his thoughts on the goals of Tuesday night's big speech and the challenges ahead. There were ground rules for the discussion: We are not allowed to quote the president or his senior aides directly."

King did note, however: "The first movie Obama viewed in the White House theater was 'Slumdog Millionaire.' He loved it, and parts of the movie reminded him of his childhood days in Jakarta, Indonesia."

Stephanopoulos blogged: "We learned at the White House lunch today that the Obama's have a family tradition that I want to adopt at our house.

"At dinner, they play a game called 'Roses and Thorns.' Everyone takes a turn describing a good thing that happened that day (rose) and a low moment or tough problem they had to deal with (thorn).

"When the President finished his turn after a particularly challenging day at the White House (we didn't learn which one), Malia told her Dad: 'You have a really thorny job.'"

In a video, Gibson chatted with Stephanopoulos, saying of Obama: "He says he likes the hard problems, he likes the job, he likes doing the job. Interesting to hear him say, though, that the one thing that's difficult to deal with is the bubble, that you are isolated from people in a way that puts you apart from people, being able to go to a coffee shop and sit down and just with your antenna sort of be able to feel what's going on in the room."

Katie Couric also blogged about the bubble: "[T]he President can't go to the corner drugstore, run on the National Mall, or sit in a diner and soak in the mood or overhear conversations.

"He said he wishes he could do the job anonymously. At that point, his senior adviser said: 'Then you'd be Dick Cheney.' That got a big laugh."

Live Online

By Dan Froomkin
9:58 AM ET, 02/25/2009

I'm hosting my White House Watch live chat today at 1 p.m. ET. Let's talk about President Obama's big speech last night and his first month in the White House.

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:55 AM ET, 02/25/2009

Ed Stein on the state of the union, Walt Handelsman on confidence, RJ Matson on Republican tweets, Mike Luckovich on the Republican dilemma, Clay Bennett on the missing piece, and Rex Babin on bipartisanship.

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