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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."

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