By Tom Shales
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
President Obama, who gave his first speech to a joint session of Congress last night, doesn't seem capable of bad speeches. Although this one began after unfortunate delays and with a slight parliamentary slip-up, he maintained his admirably high standards with a kind of state-of-the-Union speech that wasn't officially a State of the Union speech.
It wasn't so much one big speech, in fact, as a couple of dozen little speeches fastened together, each building to its own climax and, usually, to a promise of better times -- a message the networks were buzzing out to millions of anxious folks at home.
Obama, at one point, referred to America's deepening and debilitating recession as a "predicament." But for the record, the state of the Union is going to get better. Like the man in the clothing-store ads, Obama seemed to be saying, "I guarantee it." At several points in the speech, he even sounded gratifyingly firm and unyielding, as when he said of the blight of outrageously overpaid CEOs, "Those days are over." Or when he promised, to thunderous applause, an end to "no-bid contracts that have wasted billions of dollars in Iraq."
The president pledged to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term. He promised that by 2020, America would again lead the world in percentage of college-educated adults. He vowed to reform health care and to find "a cure for cancer in our time." Whew! It all sounded so nice.
On more than one occasion, Republicans joined Democrats in applauding or rewarding the president with a standing ovation. Actually, there was too much applause and ovating, as has long been a tradition no matter how good or bad a speaker the president was. Obama, knowing that excessive interruption is counter-effective, sometimes spoke right through the applause and cheers, not always waiting patiently for them to subside.
For all his oratorical skills, however, it seems very likely that Americans who watched the speech probably are not terribly eager to see another one soon. There has been criticism that after eight years of a president who often seemed to be in hiding, the nation now has a president who won't seem to relinquish the TV cameras to anybody else -- a president who, as George Will said recently on ABC's "This Week" program, is too "in-your-face" for his own good.
We've seen Obama give presidential speeches -- after a campaign full of would-be-presidential speeches -- as well as hold presidential news conferences and convene a sort of fireside chat. We've seen him in just about every framework but sitting in his pajamas at the breakfast nook. He looks good, he sounds good, and last night, he again proved an adept ad-libber when the occasion arose ("See, I know we can get some concensus in here," he said when Republicans joined in cheers over his remarks about the economy). It has become a given, no surprise.
His speeches will always make news, but the fact that he's a pretty great communicator is no longer a revelation. So after perfecting a style, and having given a speech last night that was full of practical content, there isn't much further he can go as a speechmaker. "It is time for America to lead again," he said, but hasn't he said that before? How many times can he say "it's time" before it really is time? The honeymoon might go on, but if it turns out to be a case of too much talk and too little action, the great communal cry of national disappointment will be crushing, and cruel.
Again there were Kennedy echoes in the speech -- most obviously when Obama singled out ailing (and absent) Sen. Ted Kennedy as "a man who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country," a paraphrase from President John Kennedy's inaugural address. Earlier, Obama referred (and not, seemingly, for the first time) to "a twilight struggle for freedom," echoing President Kennedy's inaugural reference to the "long, twilight struggle" in which free people are engaged.
Obama spoke of three great challenges facing the country in addition to economic recovery: energy, health-care reform and education. He invoked great dreams of not only recuperation, but also triumph. And he graciously included a nod to his vice president, Joe Biden, seated behind him next to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who incidentally gummed up the beginning of the speech by being too slow to gavel the House chamber to order to introduce the president, as is the custom.
So Obama actually began the speech twice, a tiny foul-up that was nevertheless unfortunate. When things go wrong in an Obama speech, they're usually somebody else's fault. There were no other measurable mistakes. It was all nearly perfect. Now the two words uppermost in the national consciousness: "What next?"
We just thought we'd ask.