What Worked — And What Didn't — In Obama's Speech : It's All Politics His party has gone from 60 to 59 in the Senate, but he's still fighting for health care. Trouble is, he didn't explain how we get from here to there. Political Junkie looks at the highs and lows of the State of the Union address.
NPR logo What Worked — And What Didn't — In Obama's Speech

What Worked — And What Didn't — In Obama's Speech

There is no one in our current political life who gives a speech like Barack Obama. The president does it thoroughly, conversationally and effortlessly, whereby the points he wants to raise are usually clear and logical. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were masters of giving a speech, but there is something about the way President Obama does it that stands out over the others.

That was certainly the case last night in his State of the Union message before a joint session of Congress and a prime-time national television audience of millions. His reasoning behind his call for job creation was what the American people wanted to hear, and his argument for keeping up the battle for health care coverage — and why the status quo is unacceptable — was compelling.

Compelling, but familiar. If the president had ideas of how to make it happen, it escaped my ears. "Let's get it done" and "take another look" don't exactly sound like a game plan to me. I don't have in front of me Obama's speech to Congress from last September — the memorable Joe Wilson "You lie" outburst speech — but sure sounds pretty much like what I heard last night. People are hurting. Families are suffering. Passing health care legislation is crucial.

If the rhetoric was familiar, the same can't be said about the political reality facing him. Back then, his party had 60 votes in the Senate. And even with his passionate case for health care that he made over and over in 2009, the Democratic-controlled Congress still failed to get it done. Joe Lieberman wanted this; Ben Nelson wanted that. Deals were made, votes were, um, bought. And yet we still had stalemate. House Democrats didn't like what the Senate Democrats were offering, and Senate Democrats didn't care for what the House Democrats had passed. House Democrats didn't even like what other House Democrats were offering. So we can blame Scott Brown's (R) upset victory in Massachusetts that resulted in the Dems having "only" 59 votes. And we can point fingers, as Obama did last night, at the GOP: "Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership."

But how does that get us closer to passing health care?

There was a lot of pre-speech speculation that if the president hoped to get the legislation passed, he would have to scale back his plans to reduce health care costs while increasing coverage. He did not do that. But he didn't alter his approach either. True, Republicans show no inclination of compromising on the issue; they feel their strategy is working (as shown by the Massachusetts results). I did not see one Republican last night saying his or her opposition was softening. But there was no reaching out by the president either. I know it sounds naive, if not uninformed, to note that last night's speech seemed political in nature. EVERYTHING in Washington, by definition, is political. But this State of the Union message sounded more political, more defiant, and more about slights and winning points ... even as Obama said he was tired of the same old political games played in Washington.

Republicans were not pleased when Obama pointed to the Bush administration for the source of many of the country's woes. Such as this passage:

At the beginning of the last decade, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. By the time I took office, we had a one year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. That was before I walked in the door.

Or this one:

One year ago, I took office amid two wars, an economy rocked by severe recession, a financial system on the verge of collapse, and a government deeply in debt.

Or this:

From some on the right, I expect we'll hear a different argument — that if we just make fewer investments in our people, extend tax cuts for wealthier Americans, eliminate more regulations, and maintain the status quo on health care, our deficits will go away. The problem is, that's what we did for eight years. That's what helped lead us into this crisis. It's what helped lead to these deficits. And we cannot do it again.

The point is, he is right. He inherited a hell of a mess. The deficits that ballooned during the Bush years often went unmentioned by Republican lawmakers, as if they didn't exist; it wasn't until Jan. 20, 2009 that we heard much of their outrage. But at some point, the president and his administration are going to realize that voters are less interested in pointing fingers than they are in getting results. True, Democrats spent decades blaming Herbert Hoover for the nation's economic woes, often with some measure of success. I just don't think Bush's name will be on the minds of many who will cast votes in November.

For all of his eloquence and all of his brilliance, Obama still seemed that his troubles lay not in his policies but his failure to adequately sell them. On health care, he said this:

This is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people.

How much clearer could he be? How many times does he need to go before Congress, and the American people, before he realizes that his problems may be more than simple communication? That's why, even though I thought he delivered a masterful speech, in which he laid out what was at stake, it ultimately seemed, for naught. Democrats heard what they wanted to hear, and Republicans heard what they wanted to hear. No minds were changed. And I suspect that's true of the public at large as well.

One of the more remarkable moments came when the president chastised the Supreme Court for its recent ruling relaxing corporate spending on campaigns:

It's time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to candidates for federal office. Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that's why I'm urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong.

I've read a lot of stuff from people who thought this was a great move on Obama's part. Stick it to the court, they said! I disagree. I'm not making the case for or against the court's ruling. I just thought the forum was inappropriate. He could have held a news conference and made his dissatisfaction clear. Or he could have released a statement. But to do it before a joint session of Congress, with the members of the court sitting in front, seemed like an ambush, and not fitting for a state of the union address. I thought back to President Eisenhower — who in his memoirs said naming Earl Warren as chief justice was the worst mistake he ever made — and trying to imagine him criticizing the court during a similar setting. I couldn't.

After Obama said his thing about the court decision, Justice Samuel Alito had the closest thing to a Joe Wilson moment. He shook his head and seemed to mouth the words "not true." He may have a point here. Check out this analysis by Michael Sherer in Time magazine's Swampland blog, in which he cites Linda Greenhouse, the longtime New York Times court watcher.

The bigger issue, at least in my eyes, was that this wasn't the proper venue to criticize a court ruling. Others will disagree, and I understand that. I'd like to hear what you have to say.

Ultimately, I think one of the more significant things the president said came when he read off his record of tax cuts for middle-class Americans. Noting the lack of appreciation — heck, the lack of a response — from the Republicans, the president ad-libbed, "I thought I'd get some applause on that one."

That stuck with me. Deep down, I think Obama always expected far more applause — from Republicans, from his fellow Democrats, from the American people — for what he's done, and tried to do, in his year as president. As he pursues his agenda in this election year, I think something drastic is going to have to happen if he is to successfully implement that agenda. A speech ain't going to cut it.