Obama: A Leader in the House

The state of the union may not be strong, but, judging from his speech to Congress, the state of his presidency is.

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 12:29 AM EST

An organized mind at work is a wonderful thing to watch. During his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, President Barack Obama placed the mind of his presidency on display, and it was wonderfully organized. The speech—a State of the Union stand-in—presented a clear, mostly left-of-center agenda for his presidency and a series of forceful rationales for his proposed actions. Obama offered all this up with a now-familiar fair dose of charm and grace. It's been years since any BMOC in Washington has presented such an extensive and well-articulated plan for—dare one say it—change.

This was a political speech, so it had the predictable elements: Americans don't give up, we'll pull together and rise again. But the strategic thrust of the speech was deftly delivered: Obama declared that the crisis—make that, crises—of the moment offers opportunities for fundamental shifts in national policies related to the economy, energy, education, and health care. In other words, the current calamity provides additional cause to proceed rapidly and ambitiously on these fronts.

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At the start of the address, Obama said now was not the time to "lay blame" for the current predicament. But he did, noting that for years Washington—a.k.a. the George W. Bush administration—did little to deal with fundamental economic flaws, the nation's oil dependency, and the country's troubled health care system. "We have lived through an era," Obama said, "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." So now, he added, a "day of reckoning has arrived."

Thus, a young black guy stood before Congress and in front of an older white guy (Vice President Joe Biden) and a woman (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) to lay out a road map for saving America.

Much of the first half of Obama's speech was devoted to a forceful, yet not partisan, defense of his first steps in office. He praised the passage of the stimulus bill. And as he did so, a televised moment occurred that could well come to symbolize the two parties: Democrats stood to cheer the $787 billion measure; Republicans kept their backsides in their seats. In the next election cycle—when the initial results of the stimulus legislation will be apparent—this image will likely be ammo for one of the two parties. (And when Obama referred to a provision that will provide tax credits for college tuition, many in the chamber applauded; Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, did not.)

Obama then hailed and explained his administration's preliminary endeavors to prevent the further collapse of the financial system and to address the mortgage implosion. He acknowledged that doling out billions to bad bankers is a hard sell. But, once again, he had a convenient foil: the Bush administration. He declared,

This time, [the banks] will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer. 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.

This not-too-subtle reference to Bush's botched bailout received a tremendous ovation. And Obama, not shying away from bad news, noted that propping up Wall Street will probably require more than the $700 billion or so already set aside. (He did not go into details about his various save-the-system plans.)

The first half of Obama's speech was about cleaning up the mess he had inherited. The second half was about moving ahead with a largely liberal and daring policy agenda:

The only way this century will be another American century is if we confront at last the price of our dependence on oil and the high cost of health care; the schools that aren’t preparing our children and the mountain of debt they stand to inherit.

And he made it seem so patriotic:

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 GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history.

Many State of the Union addresses end up grab-bag shopping-lists of initiatives. Obama made his priorities obvious: energy, health care, and education. He outlined his goals in each area clearly. It was very seminar-like. In the energy category, there was a call for energy efficient technology, solar, and hybrids. He made a pitch to economic nationalism, noting that China, South Korea, Germany and Japan have passed the United States by in these areas. He urged Congress to pass legislation to curb global warming pollution and boost renewable energy: "We will invest fifteen billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America." (Clean coal? Perhaps he should check in with Al Gore.)

Regarding health care, he tied the lack of health care reform to the nation's dire economic situation. It's a crafty move: attaching a big-ticket (and complicated) policy matter to the economic crisis. "Nearly a century after Teddy Roosevelt first called for reform," Obama said, "the cost of our health care has weighed down our economy and the conscience of our nation long enough." He did not describe a specific plan. His message was big-concept: the economic downturn is more reason, not less, to get cracking on health care reform. On education, he also shared no details, but he repeated his previous stance: the education system that fails too many children requires more money and more reform. He did lay down a marker: "By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world." (One of the biggest applause he received the whole evening came when he called on parents to take responsibility for their kids' education.)

As for fiscal responsibility, Obama did what all presidents do: he promised to cut unnecessary government spending and to hold a "conversation" on Social Security. But he also did what few have done: he presented a vigorous case for increasing taxes on the well-heeled. He noted he will end the Bush tax breaks for the wealthiest 2 percent and reiterated what he said on the campaign trail: "If your family earns less than $250,000 a year...you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime." He basically dared the Republicans to come after him as a tax-and-spend Democrat.

Obama deliberately concentrated on domestic issues. But he quickly ran through his national security to-do list. When he noted that he "will soon announce a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war," he earned enthusiastic applause. Even Senator John McCain stood up and clapped. When he referred to his decision to shut down Gitmo, there were more applause. And once the legislators were done cheering that, Obama declared, "I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocate that the United States of America does not torture." More applause—including from McCain and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Obama saved his political poetry for the end. He talked about hope, about the need to transcend cynicism and doubt and to eschew "the petty and the trivial." He pointed out a Miami banker sitting in the First Lady's box who had given away his $60 million bonus to 471 people who worked for his bank. He hailed Ty'Sheoma Bethea, a young girl from South Carolina sitting next to Michelle Obama, who wrote a poignant letter to Congress asking for help for her dilapidated school. "We are not quitters," she had said in her letter.

Obama stole her line. "We are not quitters," he proclaimed. We better not be. Obama had laid out a stunningly grand game plan: fix the economy, solve the housing crisis, save Wall Street, transform America's energy system, revive its education system, renew and expand its health care system, and lessen the deficit—and, oh yes, while crushing al Qaeda and resolving wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he outlined all this with a can-do attitude that seemed more than canned optimism. He was both serious and up-beat. He recognized the daunting challenges and he hailed the possibilities for progress. That is, he acted like a leader. He acknowledged these are, in a way, the worse of times, but he contended they could—if the right decisions are made—lead to better times. Let's turn lemons into an energy drink, he urged.

There's no telling if Obama can pull off any of this, or if he wins the legislation he seeks in these areas that these policies will produce a revived America. But for anyone who wants to believe in him—and in troubling times, people tend to want to believe in their leaders—Obama came across as confident and in command. He provided reason to believe. The State of the Union is not so strong at the moment, but the state of his presidency, at this early point, is.

AND THEN CAME JINDAL. The same cannot be said for Republican Louisiana Bobby Jindal's presidential prospects. He delivered the GOP response to Obama's speech, and he served up retro Republican nostrums. An American of Indian ancestry, he started out with class by hailing Obama for having "completed a redemptive journey that took our nation from Independence Hall to Gettysburg to the lunch counter and now, finally, the Oval Office."

Then he lit into Obama and his meta-approach: "The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and enterprising spirit of our citizens." To illustrate this point, Jindal told an anecdote about an unnamed government bureaucrat who during Hurricane Katrina told a sheriff that the sheriff couldn't send out rescue boats without proof of insurance and registration. Yes, the GOP's poster boy of the night was actually making the case that Katrina proved that citizens should trust Republicans more than Democrats.

Policy-wise, Jindal had little to say except cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes. And during his brief response, he reminded the viewers eight times that Americans "can do anything." (He also tossed out false facts about Obama's stimulus bill.)

There aren't many—if any—Capitol Hill Republicans whom the party would want to put on national display after an Obama speech. Jindal was chosen because he's young, he's the child of immigrants, and he speaks to the party's base. But he was far from dynamic, and he essentially just read the first (and now tattered) page of the GOP playbook: government sucks. If Jindal, who passes for a rising Republican star, and the GOP want to tie themselves to this weak mast in the middle of the current storm, Democrats at this stage don't have much to worry about.