Assessing Obama

The press and the pundits evaluate the State of the Union

President Obama’s first State of the Union address is in the books, and by the morning after the process of analyzing, scrutinizing, and slicing and dicing it in the media is well under way. So what are reporters, pundits, and other assorted media types making of the speech?

In a news analysis piece for The New York Times, Peter Baker declares that in the face of skepticism about his agenda, “Mr. Obama could have pulled back but chose to push forward.” The speech, Baker writes, was

a confident performance, more defiant than contrite, more conversational than soaring. He appealed to and scolded both parties, threatened vetoes, blamed his predecessor and poked fun at lawmakers. The agenda was largely the same, dressed up in fresh packaging, as he offered point-by-point rebuttals to the litany of critiques he hears with increasing frequency. He acknowledged only a failure to explain his policies without retreating an inch on the policies themselves. His main message: “I don’t quit.”

In Politico, meanwhile, John Harris had a somewhat different take. Harris has been writing a lot lately about how Obama’s “hope and change” agenda hit a roadblock in Washington, and he returned to that theme in his assessment of the speech, which he called “a document of downsized ambitions for a downsized moment in his presidency”:

His tepid rallying cry: “As temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we’ve proposed.”

That line fit the theme of the night. This president was in a political jam when the evening started. And it was hard to see how he was in any less of a jam when the evening ended.

In many ways his tone befittled the speech’s substance. There were only a few of the rhetorical acrobatics and lyrical flights that mark Obama’s most cultivated speeches. Instead, the language was more straightforward, more informal, more accessible — the words of a realist rather than a romantic.

But if the speech reflected his cramped circumstances, it probably did nothing to alter those circumstances.

Among liberal viewers, some expressed concerns about a perceived lack of boldness. Here’s
David Corn of Mother Jones

Throughout the speech, Obama didn’t flash much political muscle. He was selling reason—and presenting himself as a reasonable man. But that may not be enough to overcome the entrenched political opposition. At one point, he said, “I am not interested in punishing the banks.” No doubt some listeners wondered, why not? He did decry lobbyists who want to kill financial reform. But he didn’t call them out by name or say how they should be beaten back.

His MoJo colleague, Kevin Drum, wanted to hear more about the issue that dominated the policy agenda in 2009:

I was focused almost completely on healthcare in this one. On that front, I’d give Obama a B-. Starting off the speech with jobs and the economy made sense, but at the very least I was hoping that the healthcare section would stand out a bit from the rest. But I don’t think it did. Obama never really explained what the current bills do except in the very broadest sense, and even at that he only hit a couple of points. I’m just not sure that was enough. He also declined to say what he wanted Congress to do next. I didn’t want some big wonky explanation of reconciliation and so forth, but I really wished he’d at least said something about the fact that we have a bill in place right now and then urged the House to pass that bill and the Senate to agree to changes.

Maybe that just wasn’t in the cards in a speech like this. But I was still hoping for more. I wanted to hear him act like the leader of his party on healthcare, and I’m not sure he did.

Some Obama supporters, though, responded to the speech’s closing, hitting his familiar themes of persevering to bridge political divisions. Andrew Sullivan:

This was the president I supported and still support and will support because he alone is calling us away from the cynicism, the ideology, the rhetorical poison, and the red-blue divide that keep us from the reform we desperately need.

The New Republic’s Jon Chait, meanwhile, had a different take, deeming the speech “dull, cheap, [and] successful”:

For most of the last year, liberals have been berating the administration for things that weren’t its fault. Rhetoric and “leadership” can only go so far in the face of structural realities – Obama can’t turn Ben Nelson into a liberal. But we’ve finally reached a moment where these intangible qualities do matter. The Democratic Party has been verging on total breakdown, and the administration has wilted in the face of the challenge. Stemming the Democratic panic was the primary task of this speech. We’ll soon see if it succeeded. I’d bet that it did.

Conservative writers, though, sound willing to embrace only the first two of Chait’s three modifiers. At the National Review’s site, Peter Robinson had this to say:

Political rhetoric is intended to be effective—to get stuff done. What did Obama need to do tonight? Reassure his liberal base that he remained with them in substance while striking the right rhetorial and stylistic tone to reassure independents that he was still the same cool, composed, and in-control figure they found so appealing during the campaign. What did he actually do? Precisely the reverse. While offering up such stale, unimaginative policy proposals that liberals could only have moaned and gnashed their teeth, Obama adopted a tone of such petulance, peevishness and condescension that independents could only have recoiled.

Not a single memorable phrase. Not a single image of real freshness or beauty. Just a ponderous, self-indulgent, long-winded botch.

And at The Washington Post’s “Topic A” page, Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen took on Obama’s brief discussion of terrorism and national security:

His first words on the subject were a chastisement of those who would dare criticize his handling of terrorism, declaring that “all of us love this country” and warning his Republican critics to “put aside the schoolyard taunts about who is tough.” It’s all about him. No acknowledgement of how close we came to disaster or praise for the brave passengers who subdued the terrorist. No, only this message for his critics: If you question the wisdom of telling a captured terrorist “you have the right to remain silent,” you are really questioning the president’s patriotism and engaging in childish taunts.

The fact is, the American people have real concerns about Obama’s approach to terrorism. They do question the wisdom of eliminating CIA interrogations, closing Guantanamo Bay, bringing the terrorists held there to this country, putting Khalid Shiekh Mohammed and his cohorts on trial in civilian courts, and giving captured terrorists Miranda rights after 50 minutes of questioning. Instead of acknowledging these concerns, Obama dismissed them. It was strange, defensive, arrogant — and un-presidential.

Finally, a number of commentators said Obama did well—but that shouldn’t be surprising, and the heavy lifting is still before him. For example, Jon Bernstein:

He did fine. Of course he did; the State of the Union and other speeches to a Congressional Joint Session are among the easiest things that presidents ever do. They have the wonderful setting; the built-in enthusiastic live audience; the poor opposition party, either going along (good for the president!) or looking churlish and partisan (good for the president!)… Consequently, almost all presidents do well almost all of the time in their State of the Union speeches.

So, easy test, easily passed. Now, back to the hard work portion of the presidency.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.