Pitch perfect. I thought Obama nailed it. To the wall.
The speech didn’t have the usual Obama level of poetry. It was a long (70 minutes, with 86 interruptions for applause) and maybe too laundry listy. Noted.
By now I’ve heard the TV pundits expose various inaccuracies and hypocrisies. (For example, his attacks on lobbyists — “Now, the House has already passed financial reform with many of these changes. And the lobbyists are trying to kill it. But we cannot let them win this fight.” — were a tad ironic, considering how many lobbyists and Wall Street fat cats he put in his administration, or how many major health care bill provisions were inserted to buy off the opposition of the big interests.)
But for me, the speech fit the moment perfectly. Coming now, after the Massachusetts election, the loss of the Dems filibuster-proofness, the possible collapse of the health care bill, the falling poll numbers, the Dem-on-Dem dogfighting, I expected more regret than determination. A swing to the right was widely predicted, or a Clintonian let-us-do-small-things approach. Obama is a conciliator, not a scrapper by nature.
But the big ending…
“The spirit that has sustained this nation for more than two centuries lives on in you, its people. We have finished a difficult year. We have come through a difficult decade. But a new year has come. A new decade stretches before us. We don’t quit. I don’t quit.”
…was what I needed to hear, what his allies needed to hear, and what many independents and swing voters needed to hear. It even crossed my mind — although the speech included a generous dose of Repub-blaming — that there might Repubs who would respond to the let-us-work-together stuff.
I was actually taken aback to hear the pundits ripping the speech, predictably on Fox (Charles Krauthammer called the speech “strained and unctuous,” Steve Hayes of the Weekly Standard called the tone “surprisingly flat”) but even on PBS (liberal ol’Mark Shields called it “workmanlike” and “a supermarket of a speech”). And on CNN, the alleged liberals were on the defensive (even as Soledad O’Brien brought in the instant poll numbers which suggested the speech was a big hit out in America, although that may change after the pundits get done).
By the time I staggered to this keyboard, I was a little embarrassed at my reaction. Being a self-hating liberal whose mind is so open my brains have fallen out, I usually do a lot of back-and-forthing. I’ve panned more Obama speeches or faint-praised them, than raved about them.
A rave review
But I’m raving about this one. Here are some the passages that worked well for me.
Showing that he gets what pisses people off:
“For these Americans and so many others, change has not come fast enough. Some are frustrated; some are angry. They don’t understand why it seems like bad behavior on Wall Street is rewarded, but hard work on Main Street isn’t; or why Washington has been unable or unwilling to solve any of our problems. They’re tired of the partisanship and the shouting and the pettiness. They know we can’t afford it. Not now.
“So we face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope — what they deserve — is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics. For while the people who sent us here have different backgrounds, different stories, different beliefs, the anxieties they face are the same. The aspirations they hold are shared: a job that pays the bills; a chance to get ahead; most of all, the ability to give their children a better life.”
Denouncing the bank bailout, while defending its necessity:
“Our most urgent task upon taking office was to shore up the same banks that helped cause this crisis. It was not easy to do. And if there’s one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans, and everybody in between, it’s that we all hated the bank bailout. I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal. [Laughter.]
“But when I ran for president, I promised I wouldn’t just do what was popular — I would do what was necessary. And if we had allowed the meltdown of the financial system, unemployment might be double what it is today. More businesses would certainly have closed. More homes would have surely been lost.”
Channeling populist rage, while promoting his bank fee idea:
“Now, I know Wall Street isn’t keen on this idea. But if these firms can afford to hand out big bonuses again, they can afford a modest fee to pay back the taxpayers who rescued them in their time of need.”
Calling attention to one of the big Repub lies about what he’s done (and then taunting them slightly for failing to applaud for tax cuts):
“Now, let me repeat: We cut taxes. We cut taxes for 95 percent of working families. [Applause.] We cut taxes for small businesses. We cut taxes for first-time homebuyers. We cut taxes for parents trying to care for their children. We cut taxes for 8 million Americans paying for college. [Then, noting that only the Dem side of the audience was clapping, speaking directly to the Repub side:] I thought I’d get some applause on that one.”
It was awkward, and apparently unprecedented, for the prez to rebuke the Supreme Court, with them sitting right there and with Obama’s applauding allies surrounding them (Justice Alito was visibly upset), but I agree with what he said about last week’s Supreme Court ruling:
“With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems.”
On taking on too much
A direct and fairly eloquent response to the criticism that he has taken on too much in his first year:
“From the day I took office, I’ve been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious; such an effort would be too contentious. I’ve been told that our political system is too gridlocked, and that we should just put things on hold for a while.
“For those who make these claims, I have one simple question: How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold?” (A reasonable question, methinks.)
Throwing some Republican bones:
“But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development.”
I’m sure many analysts will emphasize Obama talked more and sooner about jobs, jobs, jobs than about health care or cap-and-trade, but he didn’t back down on either of these.
“I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But here’s the thing — even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future — because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.”
The tone on health care was neither stubborn nor resigned. He offers to take some blame, offers to listen to Republican ideas, but promises not to give up. Quoting it at length:
“We still need health insurance reform. Yes, we do.
“Now, let’s clear a few things up. I didn’t choose to tackle this issue to get some legislative victory under my belt. And by now it should be fairly obvious that I didn’t take on health care because it was good politics. [Laughter.] I took on health care because of the stories I’ve heard from Americans with preexisting conditions whose lives depend on getting coverage; patients who’ve been denied coverage; families — even those with insurance — who are just one illness away from financial ruin.
“After nearly a century of trying — Democratic administrations, Republican administrations — we are closer than ever to bringing more security to the lives of so many Americans. The approach we’ve taken would protect every American from the worst practices of the insurance industry. It would give small businesses and uninsured Americans a chance to choose an affordable health care plan in a competitive market. It would require every insurance plan to cover preventive care…
“Our approach would preserve the right of Americans who have insurance to keep their doctor and their plan. It would reduce costs and premiums for millions of families and businesses. And according to the Congressional Budget Office — the independent organization that both parties have cited as the official scorekeeper for Congress — our approach would bring down the deficit by as much as $1 trillion over the next two decades.
“Still, this is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people. And I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, the process left most Americans wondering, ‘What’s in it for me?’
“But I also know this problem is not going away. By the time I’m finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance. Millions will lose it this year. Our deficit will grow. Premiums will go up. Patients will be denied the care they need. Small business owners will continue to drop coverage altogether. I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber.
“So, as temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we’ve proposed. There’s a reason why many doctors, nurses, and health care experts who know our system best consider this approach a vast improvement over the status quo. But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. Let me know. Let me know. [Applause.] I’m eager to see it.
“Here’s what I ask Congress, though: Don’t walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. [Applause.] Let’s get it done. Let’s get it done.”
I’m not sure, but I believe that he had the Repubs applauding by the end of that passage. And that “come together and finish the job” stuff is catnip for independents, and for me, too.
And more catnip for those who crave bipartisanship:
“What frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. We can’t wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side — a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. I’m speaking to both parties now. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants shouldn’t be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual senators.
“Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, no matter how malicious, is just part of the game. But it’s precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it’s sowing further division among our citizens, further distrust in our government.
“So, no, I will not give up on trying to change the tone of our politics. I know it’s an election year. And after last week, it’s clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual. But we still need to govern.
“To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town — a supermajority — then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. So let’s show the American people that we can do it together. “
I’ll skip most of the long foreign and military policy section, because the length of this post is already redonkulous, but Obama did promise to do something about the bizarre “don’t ask-don’t tell” policy on gays in the military.
“This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It’s the right thing to do.”
The camera showed the uniformed military leaders sitting still, which is apparently required of them, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates was applauding.
Obama didn’t introduce any guests in the audience, a break from recent tradition that I personally welcome, but the cutest moment of the evening (and I’m willing to believe that last bit was unscripted) occurred when the POTUS acknowledged his wife up in the balcony for her commitment to working on childhood obesity, thus:
“I want to acknowledge our First Lady, Michelle Obama, who this year is creating a national movement to tackle the epidemic of childhood obesity and make kids healthier.”
As everyone turned and stared and started to give the FLOTUS a standing ovation, she, looking genuinely uncomfortable, gestured for everyone to sit back down. And her husband ad-libbed (unless they are both excellent actors): “Thank you. She gets embarrassed.”
I’m embarrassed too, for finding so little fault in so long a speech. I pledge to regain my critical faculties momentarily.
Pitch perfect. I thought Obama nailed it. To the wall.