Politics Experts Assess Obama's First Address to a Joint Session of Congress

Excerpts from President Obama's first major address to a Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009.Video: AP, Editor: Jacqueline Refo/washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, February 25, 2009; 12:21 AM

The Post asked political experts to weigh in on how President Obama did last night in his first address to a joint session of Congress. Below are responses from Linda Chavez, Robert Shrum, Ed Rogers, Ruy Teixeira, Lisa Schiffren, Larry J. Sabato, Norman J. Ornstein and Greg Mueller.


Chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity; former member of the Reagan administration

President Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress was a disappointing performance, both substantively and stylistically. There were no new ideas -- just a rehash of his popular campaign themes: renewable energy, universal health care, and more money for education. How will he pay for it -- oh, and cut the deficit in half at the same time? By taxing the rich, of course. This class warfare theme may have worked well for him on the campaign trail, but it can't possibly be taken seriously as economic policy. Even if we confiscated all their money, there aren't enough rich people left to pay for the spending binge the Democrats have planned.

The president succeeded in being more upbeat than he has the last few weeks, but he had to do more tonight than project optimism. So far, the president and his team have come up with lots of ways to throw borrowed money at the financial crisis, but how many people are really confident that this money will be well-spent? Uncertainty, as much as fear, will keep Americans from spending, businesses from investing, and banks from lending. Obama didn't give enough concrete answers to dissipate that uncertainty, no matter how hopeful his tone.


Democratic strategist and senior fellow at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service

The country was with the president before. And then he recast a speech to Congress as a fireside chat. He was both eloquent and plain-spoken, a rare combination. He not only made his economic policies more comprehensible, but dared a powerful appeal against "anger" -- toward banks or Wall Street or the dispossessed -- as a guide to fateful decisions. In that sense, it was a brave speech.

But it was also a big one. Obama rejected the caution of some to postpone healthcare reform. "This year," he affirmed. And so, like FDR's, his presidency may be remembered for social reform as well as economic recovery. The reach is ambitious, but the times are right, and this president is both coolly focused and warmly empathetic. No wonder the congressional Republicans looked befuddled. They need the country to fail; if the president succeeds, they're headed for a long time in the minority as America enters the Obama era.


White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; group chairman of BGR Holding

President Obama chose to give a speech that was more philosophical than programatic. He couldn't please everybody, so he took a hard left turn and told us, unapologetically, that government is the answer: We will spend what ever it takes; we will have an inspector general reviewing bank transactions and executive pay. He promised more money in handouts for all except the top 2 percent of taxpayers. He moved away from discussing the renewal of classic American innovation, where I think he is at his best, and toward the pedantic, where the American people expect the typical politician to go.

I fear his attempt to be something new ended during the speech. And what else should we have expected? Not one of the officials he has put in charge of the economic recovery has ever signed the front of a paycheck.


Senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-author of "The Emerging Democratic Majority"

One remarkable thing about President Obama is how well he reads the public. And his speech showed that.

Obama has been accused of being too somber about the difficulties facing the country. But the public is so convinced -- rightly -- that we're in the soup and won't get out of it anytime soon that any attempt to sugarcoat it would have sounded fake. However, Obama added, if we work hard, we can overcome these problems. That's the hope part. People want to be hopeful but not naive, and Obama provided a way for them to do that.

Before this speech, over three quarters of the public said they were optimistic about the next four years with Obama. And the reaction to the speech, which eloquently made the somber but hopeful case? According to a CBS News poll, 80 percent of speechwatchers now approve of Obama's plan for dealing with the economic crisis, up from 63 percent before the speech. In a CNN poll, 85 percent said his speech made them more optimistic about the direction the country is going in.

That's Obama. Somber, earnest -- and effective. He's giving Americans hope because they believe he takes change and problem-solving seriously. How refreshing.


Speechwriter to Vice President Dan Quayle; contributor to National Review Online's "The Corner" blog

Having exhausted the political utility of rabid fear-mongering to pass his spending bill, President Obama chose a more moderate tone in his speech before Congress. Rational adults are worried enough, so it was nice of the president to lay off the evocations of depression-era misery, even if he didn't achieve something uplifting.

Real hope -- let alone investment-grade confidence -- comes from a real plan, which was not in evidence. Citizens who run family budgets, small businesses and large investment firms -- the people Obama needs to start spending and investing -- got nothing firm on which to base their plans, except the knowledge that their taxes will rise as he spends lavishly on undefined education, health care and alternative energy programs.

Obama cleverly acknowledged some criticisms of his policies. That's a smart device that suggests the speaker has considered objections and rationally rejected them. But Obama simply dismissed the problems: Yes, it's bad to leave the kids huge deficits -- but we must "invest" in government programs for their future. No mortgage bailouts for speculators or overbuyers -- just the others. I'm spending world-historic amounts of money we don't have, "not because I believe in bigger government -- I don't." I'm creating or saving 3 million jobs with public projects -- but the jobs will be in the private sector. By the way, anyone still concerned about America's will in the war on terror should understand it isn't a priority. Period.

Obama uses rhetorical talent to distract from his actions. No matter how well delivered, this speech won't have reassured those who doubt the efficacy of the president's policies to date.


Director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics

Until this energetic, personal speech, most observers didn't fully grasp just how astonishingly ambitious President Obama is. Solving the worldwide fiscal crisis, creating millions of jobs, reducing the debt and revolutionizing the fields of health care, energy and education would be enough for a half-century of progress, not one mere presidency. Whether he succeeds or fails, it is an agenda of historic proportions, with results guaranteed to be spectacular in accomplishment or catastrophe.

Obama is also determined not to demonize Republicans. But all presidents need enemies to flog. He blasted corrupt CEOs, greedy Wall Street executives, and gluttonous bankers. As Obama intended, average Americans in their living rooms cheered.

It wasn't all heroics. The president punted essential Social Security reform, saying he would "begin a conversation" about this out-of-control entitlement. No, we've had commissions and conversations galore for decades, and everybody already knows the hard choices that have to be made

What are Republicans to do? Judging by Bobby Jindal's amateurish rejoinder, plagued by embarrassing audio hitches, they haven't a clue. No one can compete with the majesty of a presidential address to a rapturous Congress. Jindal's sights can now be set on 2016, not 2012.


Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of "The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track"

This was anything but a typical speech by a president before a joint session of Congress. There was an effortless eloquence that was a sharp contrast with former president George W. Bush's oratory. The optimistic beginning, the almost stern middle and the uplifting end made for a tight coherence that differed from former president Bill Clinton's hour-plus litanies of programs big and small. The calls for bipartisanship were underscored by a remarkable moment right after the speech: As President Obama made his way off the dais, he stopped to hug Tom Coburn, a senator from Oklahoma and his friend. The same Tom Coburn who is as conservative as any member of Congress.

But for all that, I could not stop thinking about the substantive challenges ahead. We currently have neither the answers nor the money to solve all the immediate and long-term problems pending. We have a president with the ambition and talent to take them on. Can he find the answers, reconcile massive spending today with the need for fiscal discipline tomorrow and somehow conquer the dysfunction that still permeates the political system?


Republican strategist and former senior aide to the presidential campaigns of Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan

President Obama did an excellent job communicating his message, lacing his address to Congress with calls for economic recovery, growth, bipartisanship and fiscal responsibility. Indeed, he artfully used conservative rhetoric to sell massive government expansion.

While the market tanks and Americans watch their college and retirement funds evaporate, the president is leveraging the economic crisis to plan even more government intrusion. Much of what we heard in his speech amounts to LBJ-era programs on steroids. Talk of deficit reduction is fodder for Comedy Central coming from an administration that continues to propose billions in new spending, strapping future generations with massive debt. In response, Republicans should stand firm and recapture the conservative, limited government principles that are right, both principally and politically.

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