I thought President Obama did fine Tuesday night. Not great, but fine, considering the situation and the pre-speech hype. But I don’t expect anything much will come of it (considering the situation).
Despite his low and falling popularity and the daunting congressional gridlock that he faced, Obama put out a lot of ideas for action — not big ones and hardly any new ones, but plenty of good ones.
Despite the long odds against getting the Republican votes he would need to enact them, Obama seemed upbeat and unbowed.
Despite the pre-speech rumblings about executive actions that might test the constitutional limits of his authority, the only one he specified — increasing the minimum wage for workers employed under future federal contracts — was modest, and even Speaker John Boehner has acknowledged is within his authority. If Obama is going to create a constitutional crisis over executive imperialism, it will have to come from things beyond those he specified last night.
For me, the best passage of the speech was the blunt challenge to Republicans over Obamacare: Stop wasting time and energy voting over and over to repeal a law that you don’t have the votes to repeal. Say what you would do to improve upon the features of the law that you don’t like. Here’s the quote:
If you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, increase choice, tell America what you’d do differently. Let’s see if the numbers add up.
It’s a fair challenge. The single funniest thing Obama said was also in the Affordable Care Act section:
I do not expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law.
The most profound sentence in the hour-long speech, and I hope he really meant it, got little notice:
America must move off a permanent war footing.
I wish he meant it in the deepest sense. America has been on a permanent war footing since at least the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But I at least dearly hope that Obama will fulfill his original campaign pledge to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and not start a new one.
The emotional high point of the speech, the wounded soldier in the gallery, was for me the maudlin, exploitive low point of the speech. But of course everything should be done to help the young man continue his recovery.
The official Republican response by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers was insipid and an apparent admission that the GOP has no specific proposals for government action that can help anyone.
Seriously, here’s the full McMorris Rogers text. Find one actionable proposal.
On Fox, where there was no pretense of any balance on the panel of post-speech analysts, Charles Krauthammer acknowledged that McMorris Rogers’ speech “had no specifics at all” but nonetheless “did what it had to do, show a gentler face of conservatism.”
On CNN, where they did have a bipartisan panel, there was a lot of talk about how difficult it is to deliver the response. When Republican political operative Alex Castellanos started complimenting the McMorris Rogers’ presentation, John King challenged him to cite one substantive thing she had said or proposed. Castellanos replied: “I saw a wonderful new face of the Republican Party. I want to see more of that.”