Correction: An earlier version of this TV review incorrectly described Lou Dobbs as working for Fox News Channel. He works for Fox Business Network. This version has been corrected.
As much as we hear about television’s looming irrelevancy as a means to reach the masses, you sure wouldn’t have known it from watching President Obama’s joint-session address on jobs Thursday evening.
If TV doesn’t matter anymore, then why the scramble for a time slot, moving the address to avoid media bumper cars with Wednesday night’s live GOP presidential debate? Why the hand-wringing over landing outside of prime time — “hard against [the] NFL game,” as NBC’s Brian Williams put it?
Against all odds, this rapidly graying, tired-eyed, coming-up-short chief executive once more harnessed the power of this graying, demographically fogy-fied medium to prove that he knows how to use it. (Even if the scheduling landed him squarely in the “Jeopardy!” hour.) Obama’s American Jobs Act proposal may be a $447 billion what-if, filled with tax relief for all and ways to stimulate job growth, but Thursday’s speech should stand as one of his finest. This according to no less an authority than Fox Business Network’s own Lou Dobbs, who concluded after the speech: “I have to say, it was the stemwinder of this president’s term in office. . . . The best speech he’s ever given.”
There’s a word: stemwinder.
“We are tougher than the times that we live in,” Obama said. “And we are bigger than our politics have been. So let’s meet the moment.”
The speech was also a glimpse, perhaps, into all the television we’re going to see him do as he runs for reelection. The zinger is still key: “I know some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live,” the president said with a sort of subtextual exasperation that he mastered long ago. “Now is not the time to carve out an exception and raise middle-class taxes. . . . Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary — an outrage he has asked us to fix.”
Obama also still does the sweep of our common cultural history pretty well: “Ask yourselves: Where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways and our bridges, our dams and our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges?”
The cutaways to the House gallery were intriguing. At the president’s mention of a heavily traveled bridge between Ohio and Kentucky in want of federal repair assistance, Fox’s producers cut to Sen. Rand Paul, the boo-to-all-government Kentucky Republican, who appeared to be chewing the inside of his cheek. And several cuts to Michelle Obama on MSNBC and elsewhere seemed to indicate her glum-faced fatigue with all of this.
Politicians still want and need TV. It’s not unlike the Postal Service mess. Fine, get rid of the mail and everyone just tweet yourselves silly. But where do you think you’re going to get your next Lillian Vernon or Bloomingdale’s catalogue? And what’s the economic impact if you don’t? Likewise, the long-term business model seems to be to get rid of broadcast TV and make us mind-meld with “Gossip Girl” via broadband-on-demand. But guess what? We’re not all to that point yet. Not by a long shot.
“There has always been another thread running throughout our history — a belief that we are all connected, that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation,” the president said. (Something besides buy iPhones.)
Obama’s speech was a rare reminder of how unprepared we are to govern ourselves without some sort of common format in which to gather and weigh our options. As if to underscore that point, George Stephanopoulos and his crew on ABC immediately turned their attention to the specter of Sept. 11 anniversary terrorist threats, pushing forward the everyone-gather-’round-and-get-sharp reports of three suspicious men entering the country last month from Afghanistan; something about missing Budget and Penske rental vans out of Kansas City; instant retro to a decade ago.
At 32 minutes long, Obama’s address was more a values speech than a political one.
It was more about a man at the end of his rope who nevertheless still has to believe in something, talking as plainly as he could — more plainly than usual, plainer than plain; an urgent plea that was filled with specific proposals and an imploring to Americans to think about one another. “This isn’t class warfare. This is simple math. This is simple math.”
Near the end, it became the presidential equivalent of turning up the radio in your American car when “We Built This City” by Starship comes on.
“We shouldn’t be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards,” he said. “This larger notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everyone’s money, let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they’re on their own — that’s not who we are. That’s not the story of America.”
Obama hasn’t lost his ability to give some of the finest live presidential oratory that many of us channel-surfers have heard in our adult lifetimes.
Not that anyone has to like him any more than they did before.