SOTU 2010: The before-and-after test
posted at 1:30 am on January 28, 2010 by Karl
One way of measuring President Obama’s first State of the Union speech is to look at what his supporters were saying before and after the speech. For example, before the speech, Ezra Klein wrote:
Every Hill office I’ve spoken to in the past week has had the same complaint. “Where,” they ask, “is the White House?”
There’s been no clear message on the way forward for health-care reform. No clear articulation of preferences. No public leadership to speak of. The administration is taking temperatures rather than twisting arms. The White House press team is blasting out speeches where the president says he’ll never stop fighting on health care but pointedly refuses to throw a punch. The president is giving interviews where he seems to endorse paring the bill back and also seems to argue against doing anything of the kind.
[E]veryone agrees on one thing: Tonight’s speech is the most important of his young presidency, and it will be the most revealing of his career. Does he stand and fight for a health-care bill he believes to be a historic and necessary step forward? Or does he back away from it, letting some gestures toward his commitment to the issue stand in for the determined leadership — and the political gamble — that would represent real commitment to the issue?
The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn wrote:
A little less than two years ago, Barack Obama faced a dire threat to his presidential candidacy: The publication of explosive comments by his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama responded with what many people considered the speech of his life.
Today Obama faces a dire threat to his presidency: A political backlash threatening to destroy his signature domestic policy initiative and, more broadly, his entire governing agenda. Can he give the speech of his political life–again?
I hope he can. But it won’t be easy.
After the speech, Klein wrote:
The build-up to tonight’s State of the Union — on this blog as well as many others — was that this was a make-or-break speech for the president. The drama of the occasion mixed with the gravity of the times implied a somber, determined address. That’s not what Obama gave.
And Cohn wrote:
If you follow health care reform, you probably want to know if President Obama saved health care reform with his State of the Union address. The answer is no.
But that’s only because there’s no way he could save it with just one speech. It’s too big a job.
As for his message to the members of Congress, Obama certainly conveyed that health care remained a top priority, despite the political trouble it’s brought him and his party. Obama could have seconded, implicitly or explicitly, calls for scaling back reform. Instead, he admonished Congress not to back down…
On the other hand, Obama didn’t offer a procedural roadmap. He didn’t give a new deadline or indicate his preference for one bill or the other.
Cohn’s TNR colleague, Jonathan Chait, had not built up expectations for the speech and could afford to be less charitable:
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.
And while we are on the opposite ends of the political spectrum, Chait — like me — found Obama’s speech tonally similar to the defiant one given by Otter in Animal House (Chait has the video clip, too).
Of course, Klein and Cohn did their best to spin their newly lowered expectations, both claiming that it was a good speech, but will require follow-through from Obama. But even this spin recognizes that we are now at the point where Obama giving the Big Speech is not in itself a game-changer. The coverage from TPM encapsulates it nicely:
Democrats in both the House and Senate and beyond hailed President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight as a major step forward on health care reform. But when the speech ended, and members filed out of the House chamber, one thing was abundantly clear: no matter how good tonight’s speech was, it did not break the congressional health care logjam.
In short, it was a major step that accomplished nothing. Not openly surrendering now counts as victory. Even the Dem-leaning CNN flash poll results were limp. Year two of the Obama presidency is now about survival.