Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 28, 2010

WHY IT WORKED.... I've been trying to put my finger on why I liked President Obama's State of the Union address so much. The content and delivery were strong, but that's to be expected. I think my very positive reaction has to do with the larger context and the pre-speech expectations.

Given the public's palpable frustrations and the struggles the nation endured in 2009, there was a sense that the president would have to be vaguely apologetic during the address. He'd have to explain himself, acknowledge mistakes, and lay a new course for the year ahead. The pundits' use of words like "reboot" and "scaled back" were ubiquitous going into the speech.

The president, though, decided not to follow the conventional script. When he was supposed to be meek, he showed confidence. When expected to be contrite, Obama seemed proud. When Republicans sought deference, the president responded with strength. Indeed, while the GOP believes electoral winds are at their backs, Obama didn't mind teasing, confronting, challenging, and even mocking them in a good-natured way.

The fear that the president might shrink from the moment was backwards -- Obama stepped up and seemed larger than ever.

There was an inherent challenge that falls on any president leading during hard times: conveying to the public that policies are working, and that things are getting/will get better, without appearing ignorant of their pain. I thought Obama threaded the needle extremely well -- highlighting not just the economic hardships, but the "deficit of trust" and the pettiness that contributes to American cynicism.

Also note, Democrats have appeared on the verge of a meltdown since Massachusetts's special election. The president not only leads the executive branch, but is also the head of the party, and made it clear to his compatriots last night that they're going to have take a deep breath and get back to work.

"To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills."

Good advice. The underlying message of the night was that the president needs Democrats to follow his lead. Given the strength of the speech, it was an appeal that seems likely to work.

But perhaps the part of the speech that resonated most with me was the president's call to aim high.

"I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone. Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That's just how it is.

"Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths and pointing fingers. We can do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation.

"But I also know this: If people had made that decision 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, we wouldn't be here tonight. The only reason we are here is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard; to do what was needed even when success was uncertain; to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and their grandchildren."

It was as assertive as it was persuasive. If he can translate this vision and leadership style into a concrete action, 2010 will be far stronger than 2009.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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Comments

"If he can translate this vision and leadership style into a concrete action..."

That's still a damned big 'if.'

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on January 28, 2010 at 8:13 AM | PERMALINK

Silly point, but I couldn't help but notice the color, diversity and vitality among the Donkeys. And then the counterpoint - the old dour white clones in suits, white shirts and dark ties who sat sullen through talk of help for the middle class and small businesses.

I was inspired and didn't expect to be. Now.....
Pass. The. Damn. Bill!

Posted by: Chopin on January 28, 2010 at 8:20 AM | PERMALINK

Every time Obama makes a speech, we realize again how big he is and how small is nearly everyone in Congress.

Then, the next day, the Villagers set in to shrinking him down to their own stature, and everything declines all over again.

Until the next speech.

Obama isn't the problem. Damned near everyone else is -- Democrats as well as Republicans, plus the Villagers, plus an uninformed citizenry. We need to grow.

Posted by: K in VA on January 28, 2010 at 8:20 AM | PERMALINK

The President, and liberals in general, need to work at introducing and reinforcing the contrasts between liberals and conservatives:

We are optimistic about the future, they are fearful.

We are willing to tackle hard problems, they are only interested in posturing.

We respond to actual needs, actual conditions in the real world, they have fixed, immobile ideas, and only adjust their sales pitch to take into account current concerns.

Well, I'm obviously not a writer, someone better than I needs to craft pithy ways to say it. But the point that we need to get across is that the current Republican party is NOT a serious, responsible alternative to the Democrats. They have nothing to offer, their pitch is completely based on attacking anyone who would change things for the better.

Obama is to be given credit for not apologizing, but he needs to actually go on the offense against do-nothing, cynical, obstructionist Republicans.

Posted by: Daryl McCullough on January 28, 2010 at 8:22 AM | PERMALINK

Hard to imagine that love of country will trump politics and money in D.C. The folks up there will be inspired until they have to get back into the hunt for campaign dollars. Their lives really do suck and their governing proves it.

Posted by: lou on January 28, 2010 at 8:24 AM | PERMALINK

Steve writes:". . .generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard. . ."

One need only glance at this Congress to see that they are not Steve's "Americans". . .

Posted by: DAY on January 28, 2010 at 8:26 AM | PERMALINK

If you liked the speech and want to see its goals realized, contact your Senators and tell them to get off their asses. And remind them that 60 votes is a rule they can change, not some immutable law of nature.

He is not a dictator. He can not do this alone. Make sure he gets the support he needs.

Posted by: chrisbo on January 28, 2010 at 8:30 AM | PERMALINK

I do, however, wish he'd give up the bipartisan ghost. The best way, obviously, to restore trust in the government is for the government to do something that gives people tangible, successful results. That will also go along way toward changing the tone of the nation's political discourse, but only afterward. And the only way to get something worthwhile accomplished is to do it *without* Republican involvement, as they have made it clear they are NOT interested in accomplishing anything but obstructionism. So my message to Obama: give up the bipartisan ghost and get something worthwhile out of your time in that office.

Posted by: Varecia on January 28, 2010 at 8:31 AM | PERMALINK

Although the upcoming election could be really bad for Democrats, there are potentially fantastic opportunities for Dems. A lot of the electorate is turned off, probably Democrats even more than Republicans at the moment. However, the Republicans have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING going for them. Their main message is "We aren't democrats", but scratch through the surface even the tiniest amount and you get to more of the same policies that got us into this mess, delivered by republicans that are even more insane than usual. They should get fervid teabaggers to the polls, but Nixon's silent majority, who are usually crucial in getting them past 25 or 30% of the vote, are unlikely to be enthusiastic. With very low voter turnout, whichever side can persuade their base to turn out should do really well. Dems are admittedly more likely to take the attitudes shown around here lately by Squiggleslash & Tlaloc, but it doesn't have to be that way. The solution to Washington's supermajority gridlock is to get a clear supermajority of decent Democrats, so that we can render the Liebermans, Bayhs, and Landrieus irrelevant, and this election could produce that, if we can hold our act together and maintain focus on the larger, long-term goals. Yeah, I know, "if".

Posted by: N.Wells on January 28, 2010 at 8:32 AM | PERMALINK

'It was as assertive as it was persuasive. If he can translate this vision and leadership style into a concrete action, 2010 will be far stronger than 2009.'

The problem is that there has been nothing assertive or persuasive about his governing style. And this isn't some philosophical separation of powers thing as evidence by the manner in which they are handling the Bernake reappointment. They know how to twist arms when it comes down to something that matters.

Good to hear that after a year he seems to have figured out the Republican's strategy. Now, as leader of the Democratic party, what is he going to do to force the Senate leadership to reform itself so that we can have a functioning legislature?

Posted by: SW on January 28, 2010 at 8:33 AM | PERMALINK

There has been a failure to deliver in the past year. Enormous power has wasted away with virtually no tangible results. Obama is again using high blown oratory to inspire, which is fine, but he isn't leading. We have a Senate full of Democratic feral cats who need to be rounded up, and he isn't even pointing to the corral. Results, details, discipline, progress. That is what we need. (We especially don't need bipartisanship, capital gains tax reduction, and clean coal.)

Posted by: candideinnc on January 28, 2010 at 8:43 AM | PERMALINK

It was 'assertive and persuasive' and exactly the opposite of what he has done.

His Health Care 'compromise' is nothing other than playing it safe and appeasing insurance companies.

His spending freeze is a reach out to all the Republicans (and liable to make him into Hoover II).

He let Lieberman walk all over the Democrats.

His complete silence on issues like Gay marriage is playing it safe.

His economic team has done the same damn thing as any Republican team would have. Throw money at big banks and wealthy interests.

His recover play included tons of tax breaks he didn't really want and knew wouldn't help, at the expense of spending that would have helped.

Yeah for speechifying. Now let's see him actually stand up for something other than kicking those to the left of him.

Posted by: Moobycow on January 28, 2010 at 8:43 AM | PERMALINK

N.Wells, if I only had confidence in the elected Democrats I would start writing checks, and walking door to door, but given their performance this last year I don't. Harry Reid, Claire McCaskil et al are going to have to show me they are worth more than a bucket of warm spit.

Posted by: Ron Byers on January 28, 2010 at 8:44 AM | PERMALINK

"I've been trying to put my finger on why I liked President Obama's State of the Union address so much."

Maybe it's because you are an Obama cheerleader.

"Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths and pointing fingers. We can do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation. But I also know this: If people had made that decision 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, we wouldn't be here tonight."

Wow. If people hadn't pointed fingers in 1960 there would no longer be a State of the Union Address. Or does this mean there would be no United States? Wow.

Posted by: Ross Best on January 28, 2010 at 8:49 AM | PERMALINK

I very much support his decision to chide Congress, Republicans and Democrats for their silliness and obsession with nothing but re-election. It may have been too subtle for them.

Posted by: freelunch on January 28, 2010 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

Did anybody else notice that amidst all the crowing about middle class tax cuts Obama announced that he intends to let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy die. That is the real news coming from last night. Obama announced that he is all in favor of no capital gain tax on small business, and a lot of other targeted cuts, but the wealth transfer engine stops this year. I bet a lot of wealthy Republicans are on the phone with their Senator this morning saying something like,why are you letting that happen. Something else I will bet you. Wealthy Americans are going to be pushing for hugh corporate dividends this year and they are going to be trying to unload capital assets right now rather than 2011. That could actually stimulate the economy short term. Of course, it hurts long term because American business needs to be spending money on new plant and equipment.

Posted by: Ron Byers on January 28, 2010 at 8:56 AM | PERMALINK

Obama is a dangerous man,lol. Just reading that little chunk has me tempted to watch the whole speech and start hoping again. I'll wait a week. Maybe the urge will go away.

Posted by: Michael7843853 on January 28, 2010 at 8:57 AM | PERMALINK

The DNC called me shortly after the SOTU. I told the caller that I would donate when Harry Reid got off his ass and assembled 50+ senators to past HCR through reconciliation. I also told the caller that the DNC had done very little that was worthwhile since Howard Dean left. She said she'd been encountering a lot of frustration.

The speech was another Obama classic. He's talked the talk, but I want to see the walk. When Harry Reid leaves the WH with a sore backside, I'll start believing again. When conservadems start getting called out on THEIR obstructionism, I'll regain the faith.

We need some party discipline. I want to see the blue dogs on a short leash.

Posted by: bdop4 on January 28, 2010 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

actually howard zinn (rip) said obama was dangerous -- because he will be mediocre...

Posted by: neill on January 28, 2010 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

there was a transition late in the speech when i noticed a stillness to the listeners and in the hall... all you heard was obama, and his hands and arms thudding the podium... i had the impression that real listening was happening, and that obama was really going to tell them some true things...

but it didnt happen.

Posted by: neill on January 28, 2010 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK

Great rhetoric, as usual - However, as he asks the Democratic troops to storm the beach, will he continue to sit 10,000 yards off shore watching the assault under heavy glasses?

Posted by: berttheclock on January 28, 2010 at 9:02 AM | PERMALINK

As chrisbo said, If you liked the speech and want to see its goals realized, contact your Senators and tell them to get off their asses. And remind them that 60 votes is a rule they can change, not some immutable law of nature.

As Howard Zinn said (via Anne Laurie of Balloon Juice), "Obama will not fulfill that potential for change unless he is enveloped by a social movement which is angry enough, powerful enough, insistent enough that he fill his abstract phrases about ‘change’—that he fill them with some real, solid content."

We've got to be that movement.

I'm not sure if 'angry' is necessary, and we won't know how much power we can bring until we try. But what we can and have to do is get the 'insistent' part down.

Right now, this means keeping up the Pass The Damn Bill calls to our Congresscritters. Once they do that, we call them up to thank them, then start hammering them with calls about the next thing, be it climate change, jobs, or reining in the bankstas.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on January 28, 2010 at 9:03 AM | PERMALINK

Something else letting the Bush tax cuts die does politically. By announcing a freeze starting next year, if the Republicans regain control this fall next year he can veto any effort to restore them as violating his government freeze. What this does is motivate Mitch McConnell to engage now while they still can. If they have a lick of sense Republicans will thaw just a little and try to engage to restore the tax cuts that expire next year.

Very subtle move by Obama. I bet it only dawns on the Washington crowd after they get calls from Jupiter Island and Palm Beach this morning.

Posted by: Ron Byers on January 28, 2010 at 9:04 AM | PERMALINK

Needless to say HuffingtonPost can not slam the speech enough.

Posted by: Saint Zak on January 28, 2010 at 9:04 AM | PERMALINK

Let me see if I can explain this tax cut stuff a little more. We have been slamming Obama because he has announced support for tax cuts, but the tax cuts he supports are pretty targeted Democratic tax cuts aimed squarely at the middle class. The Republicans could give a shit about helping the middle class. They want to keep the tax structure just the way it is. They have been pushing for a continuatioin of the Bush tax cuts on the ground that those cuts help produce jobs. I know they have because I actually talk to Republicans. The pressure on our Congress critters to keep some or all of the Bush tax cuts in place is going to grow over the next months. The pressure on the Republicans will be especially tough. We are going to see a lot of stuff in the Villager press about keeping them to help us out of the great recession. Again Obama has announced support for very targetted tax cuts. He has done it preemptively. He has done it loudly. We are all in a tizzy, but Obama's positioning on tax cuts is brilliant. Especially if he has the balls to stick with it. At the very least his positioning will give the Republicans in the Senate an incentive to play a little ball.

Posted by: Ron Byers on January 28, 2010 at 9:20 AM | PERMALINK

I agree with Steve's analysis and I agree completely with "K in VA". As the President spoke these lines and some others in his frank discussion of where we have been and where we need to go, you could almost see all those cynical pols squirming in their seats. It was a "Mr. Smith Goes..." moment. But I think Steve fails to quote the best line in this part of the speech. It was something like 'we came here to serve the people, not our own ambition' but it was delivered during applause. Now I know all you cynics and 'beltway beauty's' are laughing out loud at the rube writing this comment, but some of us still believe and I think it is exactly that belief Obama captures.

Posted by: robert on January 28, 2010 at 9:20 AM | PERMALINK

"Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths and pointing fingers."

Such as proposing a spending freeze when the economy will no doubt still stink next year? Other than that, I was happy with the speech.

Posted by: Matt on January 28, 2010 at 9:31 AM | PERMALINK

"I've been trying to put my finger on why I liked President Obama's State of the Union address so much."

Because he's a Democrat.

Posted by: am on January 28, 2010 at 9:38 AM | PERMALINK

"The underlying message of the night was that the president needs Democrats to follow his lead."

Isn't the problem though that the president hasn't been leading?

I didn't watch the speech last night. I couldn't. The floundering of the Congressional Democrats and the White House has me just about around the bend.

I'm tired of optics being offered in lieu of substance.

Posted by: karen marie on January 28, 2010 at 10:43 AM | PERMALINK

Here is the part of the speech that struck me as pitch perfect and fairly blunt on the 'bipartisanship issue':

"But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. We can't wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side -- a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. The confirmation of -- (applause) -- I'm speaking to both parties now. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants shouldn't be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual senators. (Applause.)

Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, no matter how malicious, is just part of the game. But it's precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it's sowing further division among our citizens, further distrust in our government.

So, no, I will not give up on trying to change the tone of our politics. I know it's an election year. And after last week, it's clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual. But we still need to govern.

To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills. (Applause.) And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town -- a supermajority -- then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. (Applause.) Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. (Applause.) So let's show the American people that we can do it together. (Applause.)"

Posted by: robert on January 28, 2010 at 10:46 AM | PERMALINK

Wow I guess the majority of the commenters really DID miss the speech...

"I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone. Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That's just how it is. "

But then you'd really rather CRITICIZE then do anything for yourselves...yep it's really HIS fault for not stepping up...ah irony.

Posted by: SYSPROG on January 28, 2010 at 12:08 PM | PERMALINK

Here is my headline:

"Justice Alito exposes his inner teabagger, delegitimizes the Supreme Court - America doomed."

Posted by: Ohioan on January 28, 2010 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

I enjoyed the fact that the repubs sat like naughty schoolboys, old McConnell sat with a weak smirk on his face, Cantor too, the rest sat like they were being reprimanded by a grown up.

Posted by: J.Sykes on January 28, 2010 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

If the Democratic leaders in the Senate and, to a lesser degree, in the House have to be browbeaten by President Obama to get Democratic legislation passed, the question then becomes: why are THEY there?
And references to GWB are inane and irrelevant. GWB didn't do any arm-twisting; that was DeLay. Nor did the Republicans face a lock-step Democratic opposition in the Senate. The then-Republican Majority leader didn't need to worry about defections from his party; there were enough Democrats ready, however reluctantly, to keep needed legislation moving by voting "Aye". Not so now.
If the Democrats in the House and Senate don't want to do their jobs, what makes anyone think that threats from the President will move them? There's also this to remember: the more the White House is involved, the more Rahm Emmanuel is involved.

Posted by: Doug on January 28, 2010 at 9:11 PM | PERMALINK

The DNC has two choices: bring back Dean now, or bring him back in December of 2010.

Posted by: Michael on January 28, 2010 at 11:18 PM | PERMALINK
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