Jonathan Chait

Obama's Dull, Cheap, Successful Speech

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President Obama’s speeches have always been notable for both their exquisite prose and their unusually high intellectual level. Tonight’s speech, while probably as effective as such speeches can be, was neither.

The dropoff between rhetoric penned by Obama and that by his staff, always noticeable, was especially so tonight. When he declared, “health care experts who know our system best consider this approach a vast improvement over the status quo,” I wondered if his budget freeze had already claimed the entire White House speechwriting staff.

Obama suggested that we should embrace alternative energy sources even if you doubt climate science. (I’m pretty sure that, if carbon dioxide were harmless, we’d be better off sticking with the cheap energy.) He embraced some hoary populist tropes, in which “Washington” and “us” are homogenous, mutually exclusive categories, and he belongs to the second. (“Washington has been telling us to wait for decades.”) And his rationale for a budget freeze made no sense whatsoever. “I am absolutely convinced that [the stimulus] was the right thing to do,” he said, “But families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions.  The federal government should do the same.” Um, why?

And when Obama announced “I do not accept second place for the United States of America,” I thought I was listening to Otter:

Still, the substance seemed to work quite well. Obama has taken the liberal advice to hold firm on financial reform, either getting a victory or an issue, rather than taking the best deal he can get from the Senate. He insisted that large banks pay back their bailout and, unbelievably, Republicans took the bait and sat on their hands. I guess it’s principled of them. But crazy.

Obama effectively projected his personality, often to the detriment of the opposition. He gently laughed at the GOP’s refusal to applaud his tax cuts. He had a winning moment when he explained his motivation for embracing health care reform: “By now it should be clear I didn’t take on health care because it was good politics.”

Obama’s closing flourish served a double purpose. Putatively, he was urging America to remember its greatness and press on in the face of adversity. The message seemed also to be aimed at his fellow Democrats, who have succumbed to utter panic in the last week:

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.  Let’s seize this moment – to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our union once more.

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.

(Click here to read Jeffrey Rosen on how Obama's war with the Supreme Court just escalated.)

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