From TV pundits to professors, from editorial writers to bloggers, those who watch politics watched Tuesday night as President Obama delivered his state-of-the-nation-type speech. Reactions are splashed with references to FDR and Ronald Reagan; cautions tend to wonder whether Obama can pull off the ambitious agenda he laid out — and criticisms focus on his view of the role of government.
Here are excerpts from reactions to the speech, with links to fuller remarks:
Washington Post editorial: “Facing an economic crisis, a banking crisis, a housing crisis and an auto industry crisis, President Obama used the opportunity of his address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night to load his plate with even more. … 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?”
Wall Street Journal editorial: “The political divide is over means, not ends, and on that score Mr. Obama is slowly revealing himself as a President who meant what he said going back to the primaries. He believes in the power of the state to drive prosperity, to reform the financial system and health care, and even to transform the entire energy economy. Mr. Obama said at one point that he didn’t believe in government for its own sake, but his policy emphasis showed otherwise. …
“Mr. Obama clearly believes the recession has created a political moment when Americans are frightened enough to be open to a new era of expanded government. The question is whether his vast ambitions will allow the private economy to grow enough even to begin to pay for it all.”
Norman J. Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, quoted in the Washington Post: “This was anything but a typical speech by a president before a joint session of Congress. There was an effortless eloquence that was a sharp contrast with former president George W. Bush’s oratory. The optimistic beginning, the almost stern middle and the uplifting end made for a tight coherence that differed from former president Bill Clinton’s hour-plus litanies of programs big and small.”
Steven Pearlstein, Washington Post: “Barack Obama climbed Capitol Hill last night and staked his presidency on bringing the nation out of its economic crisis.
“Not since Franklin Roosevelt delivered his first fireside chat, eight days into his presidency, have Americans been more hungry — and more desperate — for economic leadership. And not since FDR has there been an economic agenda as bold or ambitious, or as likely to reshape American capitalism.
” … his speech was carefully crafted to prepare the country for a deep and nasty recession while reassuring us that we’ll pull through it if we pull together behind his program. It was hardly the only balancing act that the president needed to pull off.
“He sought to give voice to the incredible anger that Americans feel toward Wall Street while reminding them of their own culpability and convincing them that the only way to avoid economic calamity may be to commit even more government money to rescue some of Wall Street’s biggest players.
“He acknowledged the failure of government to balance its accounts, regulate financial markets and spend money wisely, even as he called on Americans to reaffirm their faith in government and expand its scope and powers.
“He aimed to satisfy the demands of investors and consumers and business executives for greater clarity and certainty in government policies, even as he was forced to acknowledge that many of the details are still to be worked out.
“Last night, Obama tried to walk each of these fine lines, delivering his message with the same sense of confidence in himself, in his ideas and in his country that won him the presidency in the first place.”
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, in the Republican Party’s official response to Obama’s speech: “To solve our current problems, Washington must lead. But the way to lead is not to raise taxes and put more money and power in the hands of Washington politicians. …
“The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and enterprising spirit of our citizens. … Democratic leaders say their legislation will grow the economy. What it will do is grow the government, increase our taxes down the line, and saddle future generations with debt.
“Who among us would ask our children for a loan, so we could spend money we do not have, on things we do not need? That is precisely what the Democrats in Congress just did. It’s irresponsible. And it’s no way to strengthen our economy, create jobs, or build a prosperous future for our children.”
Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, in the Washington Post: “Until this energetic, personal speech, most observers didn’t fully grasp just how astonishingly ambitious President Obama is. Solving the worldwide fiscal crisis, creating millions of jobs, reducing the debt and revolutionizing the fields of health care, energy and education would be enough for a half-century of progress, not one mere presidency. Whether he succeeds or fails, it is an agenda of historic proportions, with results guaranteed to be spectacular in accomplishment or catastrophe.”
Andrew Sullivan, at The Atlantic: “As he gathered momentum, the emotional impact increased. The bottom line: ‘We are not quitters.’ It was perfectly pitched: a form a liberal patriotism that eschews the kind of politics the American people are sick of. A tour de force.
“But look: the politics and rhetoric are superb, but all that matters is whether he can pull this off. The results are all that matter now. He has this moment; it could make him and the rest of us. It could destroy him or us. It’s our job in this crisis to support him and to criticize him constructively. We need to rise to the occasion he is rising to. And maybe most of us will.”
Scott Paul, executive director, Alliance for American Manufacturing, commenting at Politico.com: “I think President Obama struck the right balance between ‘reckoning’ and hope. He was brutally honest with the American people about the challenges that we face, but reminded us that we’ve scaled higher peaks before, after the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the two World Wars of the last century. The real question for me is whether change will arrive in the Congress as fast as it has arrived in the White House. Old habits die hard.”
John Dickerson, Slate: “The president tried to give an honest assessment of the current dire economic condition while rallying the country to its strongest traditions of optimism and perseverance. He did it. …
“The speech was also a test of Obama’s power to persuade. In his first press conference, he played the professor, giving long answers that diagrammed perfectly but that lacked the emotional resonance of his campaign. In his quasi-State of the Union performance, he was far more like the Obama of the campaign trail. He showed how well he can use the bully pulpit that comes with his office to explain his plan, explain why he thinks its necessary and to show that he understands some measures, like the bank bailout, are unpopular. As he said at one point, ‘I get it.’ “
David Brooks, on PBS’ “NewsHour”: “I thought it was an excellent speech. It’s been a long time since I’ve really been able to rave over an Obama speech, but I thought this was a speech that perfectly captured the tenor of the country.”
Julian E. Zelizer, professor of History and Public Affairs, Princeton University, commenting at Politico.com: “The speech was a political success but now President Obama needs to continue calming markets. The credit crisis portion of the speech was essential to the next steps of the recovery. Obama needs to take that speech to the business and financial community, as well as to citizens, and to provide further discussion about how he intends to solve that crisis. The details still remain vague. The danger is if that part of the speech gets buried in the rest, thus leaving investors anxious and failing to stabilize markets.”
American viewers, according to CNN, reporting on a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey: “A national poll indicates that two-thirds of those who watched President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night felt very good about his speech. …
“Sixty-eight percent of speech-watchers questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey said they had a very positive reaction, with 24 percent indicating that they had a somewhat positive response and 8 percent saying they had a negative reaction.
“The audience watching his speech was not a perfect match with the nation’s breakdown by political party, presumably because the president is a Democrat. The speech audience questioned in the CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll was about 8 to 10 points more Democratic than the general public.
“Eighty-five percent of those polled said the president’s speech made them more optimistic about the direction of the country over the next few years, with 11 percent indicating the speech made them more pessimistic.”