Last night, I followed Barack Obama’s non-SOTU SOTU speech in three ways: watching it, reading the release of the text, and checking the instant reaction on Twitter. I did the same with Bobby Jindal’s response. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised at the response to both, and think for the most part they missed the key points.
First, SOTU speeches usually are nothing more than legislative wish lists. Presidents tell Congress what they want, and Congress applauds when they agree. If you like Barack Obama’s populist wish list, you probably liked the speech, and if not, you probably hated it. But it’s no different than hearing one of his campaign speeches in that regard — and no different than any other president’s SOTU speech. Given that Obama won a national election using essentially the agenda he had last night, I’d say he did himself a lot of good, and will get a temporary bump in the polling from it.
So instead of focusing on the I-want aspects of the speech, it’s better to look at the other messages — and one in particular struck me from both reading the text and watching the delivery. It seems that Obama has discovered that fear and dread don’t help markets. He took some edge off the populist screech last night and sent a calming message to the banking system:
I want to speak plainly and candidly about this issue tonight, because every American should know that it directly affects you and your family’s well-being. You should also know that the money you’ve deposited in banks across the country is safe; your insurance is secure; and you can rely on the continued operation of our financial system. That is not the source of concern.
The concern is that if we do not re-start lending in this country, our recovery will be choked off before it even begins.
You see, the flow of credit is the lifeblood of our economy. The ability to get a loan is how you finance the purchase of everything from a home to a car to a college education; how stores stock their shelves, farms buy equipment, and businesses make payroll.
But credit has stopped flowing the way it should. Too many bad loans from the housing crisis have made their way onto the books of too many banks. With so much debt and so little confidence, these banks are now fearful of lending out any more money to households, to businesses, or to each other. When there is no lending, families can’t afford to buy homes or cars. So businesses are forced to make layoffs. Our economy suffers even more, and credit dries up even further.
That is why this administration is moving swiftly and aggressively to break this destructive cycle, restore confidence, and re-start lending.
This got followed by a parade of we-don’t-like-bankers populist boilerplate, but Obama overall stressed time and again that the system itself will not fail. Until now, Obama pushed for legislation on the explicitly-expressed fear of total collapse (and for that matter, so did George Bush). The markets have reacted as any rational person would expect: capital has fled and values tanked. Obama finally seems to have realized this and has begun looking to change the tone of his rhetoric to make a sunnier appeal and to start building confidence instead of scaring the hell out of people. He’s back to Hope rather than Despair.
Duane Patterson pointed out on Twitter another interesting point about this speech, an omission that seems surprising given the wish-list opportunity Obama had last night. In the entire speech, Obama made not one mention of the Card Check legislation pending in Congress. He never mentioned unions at all, and only mentioned workers in relation to the necessity of restarting credit and getting jobs created. And for that matter, Obama also failed to mention the Freedom of Choice Act, which would federalize abortion and strip away all state restrictions and the Hyde Amendment that prevents federal subsidies for abortions. Obama promised constituencies that these would be two of his top priorities once elected, but in his first opportunity to lay out his legislative agenda, they were nowhere to be found.
If SOTU speeches are essentially campaign speeches, then responses are infomercials even at the best of times. Since the responders never have an opportunity to craft a specific response to points within the SOTU speech, the speaker has to find ways to lay out the opposition party’s general principles and approach. I thought Bobby Jindal did a good job doing just that. The delivery of a speech to nothing but a camera crew, after the grand spectacle of a SOTU speech interrupted every thirty seconds with standing ovations, will always be a letdown, but overall, I disagree with the Fox crew and others that Jindal was “awful”.
Jindal laid out what will be the way back for the GOP — positive alternatives to massive government growth by relying on the strength of the American people. He gave what I think will be a key line for Republicans in the next two years (emphasis mine):
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.
In Louisiana, we took a different approach. Since I became governor, we cut more than 250 earmarks from our state budget. And to create jobs for our citizens, we cut taxes six times — including the largest income tax cut in the history of our state.
We passed those tax cuts with bipartisan majorities. Republicans and Democrats put aside their differences, and worked together to make sure our people could keep more of what they earn. If it can be done in Baton Rouge, surely it can be done in Washington, DC.
We’re never going to beat Obama on style points; he’s just too good of a speaker. Republicans need to beat him on ideas, and Jindal did about as well as anyone could in doing so.
And yes, when Obama said this, I did laugh:
And I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it.
Wow — I hope Germany never does, either! Did we suddenly become the Soviets, taking credit for everyone else’s inventions? Doesn’t anyone fact-check Obama’s speeches before making them? I doubt many people will remember this speech for that, or for anything else, either, but it’s a particularly sloppy mistake.