President Obama delivered a brilliant speech Tuesday evening in what was billed as a quasi-State of the Union address. In fact, a whopping eighty-five percent of people interviewed in a CNN poll said that the speech made them feel more optimistic about where the U.S. is headed in the next few years.
Take a moment to let that number sink in. This is not the fifty-three percent of the popular vote that Obama garnered in the November election. This is eighty-five percent. Hello, public mandate. Goodbye, Washington gridlock.
Sure, public polls can be wrong or misleading. And, certainly, high public approval ratings can be ephemeral — just ask the last president. However, there is no doubting that Obama’s speech tapped into the American public’s grave concern about the health of our economy and the future of our nation, and offered us reassuring solutions for how we can meet the challenges ahead.
I happen to believe that the policies he articulated — overhauling our nation’s energy, health care, and education systems, timely programs for job creation, progressive tax cuts, and restarting the flow of credit — are the right solutions to this crisis. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Obama’s vision for governance, however, it’s difficult to deny that the president has scored a grand success at mobilizing public opinion to push his agenda through Congress and sideline the Republican opposition.
The three policy areas that he chose as the animating principles of the speech — energy, health care, and education — are overwhelmingly popular issues on which the American people, left and right, are craving for transformative change. Although boosting funding for these issues is fundamentally a very liberal idea, he deftly couched these proposals in pragmatic language calling for reform, accountability, and the elimination of waste.
Selling the financial bailout, on the other hand, is a much more challenging issue for any politician — including for former President Bush. The vast majority of the public does not seem to fully understand how essential the financial sector is to both large and small businesses alike. No doubt the image of Wall Street fat cats provides a useful icon for fanning the flames of public resentment.
Even on this point, however, President Obama made a strong case for implementing stimulus while putting his opponents on the defensive. He touted the results of the bipartisan “fiscal responsibility summit” he marshaled the day before and promised to send the Congress a budget that cuts the federal deficit in half by the end of his first term in office.
He advocated a housing plan that “won’t help speculators or that neighbor down the street who bought a house he could never afford” and touted the creation of a new lending fund to help consumers obtain automobile, college, and small business loans. In addition, he made clear that he and Vice President Biden would play an aggressive role in ensuring that state governments and bank executives spend their federal stimulus aid responsibly, and he confirmed that he would “force the necessary adjustments” when necessary.
Obama masterfully tapped into the disconnect between people’s fears for the future and their “can do” image of an America that has never failed to excel in difficult times.
He cited how, “in the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle class in history.” He alluded to a government that “didn’t supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise.” He declared that “we are not quitters” and that “we cannot consign our nation to an open-ended recession.”
President Obama’s skill as a leader and a strong orator was especially apparent in light of the bumbled effort by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to deliver the Republican answer to his address. Jindal has been promoted as the Republican Party’s answer to Obama — young, dynamic, ethnic, and technocratic — but his speech came off as fluff, full of “can do” without any of the “should do.”
Further, Jindal’s delivery was dreadful. Commentators have since described his tone as “childish,” “sing-songy,” and “weirdly robotic,” and his awkward presentation made him seem more like a Palin redux than the next Obama.
Clearly, Jindal did not perform well, and perhaps he is not yet ready for the national spotlight. But his troubles mirror the Republicans’ woes more generally; they remain a party without leadership and without a platform to rival Obama’s Presidential agenda.
If the GOP sends this sing-songy version of Jindal against the Democrats in 2012 with his cookie-cutter, Playskool vision of America in tow, Barack Obama will simply eat him alive.
David A. Weinberg is a PhD student in MIT’s Department of Political Science. He formerly served as a Middle East advisor to the Democrats on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.