Obama Seizes the Stage

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
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009; 11:13 AM

The task, as defined by Newsweek, was nothing short of momentous: "How Obama Can Talk Us Out of a Depression."

The president's address to Congress last night was an important piece of political theater. But the media-crafted idea that even someone with his oratorical skills can lift us out of this deep financial hole is a bit fanciful.

Yes, in the grand tradition of "nothing to fear but fear itself," a president's words matter. But as much as Americans like the idea of a quick fix, rescuing the banking system, the housing market and the economy itself is going to take months or years of painful measures.

The problem is that the media's attention span is too short to patiently await the outcome, and besides, no one, not even the so-called experts, knows whether the Obama plan will work. So the pundits grade him on style points: Is he inspiring confidence? Is he walking the tightrope between massive spending in the short term and deficit cutting in the long term? How's he doing in the polls?

Yesterday's spate of polls, putting Obama in the 60s, is a reminder that all the Beltway chatter -- about failed bipartisanship, Tom Daschle, Judd Gregg and so on -- sometimes doesn't mean bupkes out in the provinces. People like what the president is doing and are willing to give him a chance -- often more of a chance than the pundits.

The image last night was undeniably striking -- as Katie Couric put it, a black president, a female speaker and the "white guy" VP.

Obama didn't bury the optimistic lead: We will rebuild and recover and be stronger than ever. Before he went through the litany of problems and proposed solutions, he had to make clear that he was confident. He got applause just for mentioning the word jobs. He doesn't want bigger government, he said, he just wants more jobs. And he quickly translated the stimulus into more cops on the street and money in your paycheck.

ABC flashed a headline that Terry Moran was Twittering the speech. When Obama said his vice president would ride herd on the programs, Moran wrote: " 'Nobody messes with Joe.' I dunno. Biden is many things. An enforcer?"

Another shrewd move: Obama associated himself with the anger at banks -- "I promise you, I get it" -- before explaining that the financial bailout is really about helping people. He kept splitting the difference like that: He won't protect the auto industry from the consequences of its mistakes but will not walk away from American carmaking (sounds a tad contradictory to me). By then he was off to the rhetorical races, curing cancer, everyone will finish college, and so on. He also laid down his marker on health-care reform, the issue that Bill Clinton stumbled over 16 years ago.

The president crafted lines -- not passing on undue debt to our children, praising America's soldiers -- in a way that got Republicans on their feet as well as the Democrats. And he was quick to say that his future tax hike on the rich won't affect families making under 250K.

In the end, he was a hopemonger again -- at an exceedingly difficult time for the country.

The pundits all noted the tone. Gone was the talk of impending "catastrophe." "The most positive speech President Obama has given since election night," said ABC's Jake Tapper. Obama was "trying not to raise false expectations, but at the same time trying to give people hope there is a way out of this," CBS's Bob Schieffer said. "A tour de force politically," CNN's David Gergen said.

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