Obama Seizes the Stage

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.

Quickie CBS poll: Percentage of those who approve of Obama's plan jumped from 62 to 79 percent.

CNN's Facebook survey: 52 percent hopeful, 22 percent no change, 26 percent fearful.

L.A. Times: "Obama was elected president as an agent of hope. But he has spent the first month of his presidency promoting a fearsome message: The recession will be long and deep, and possibly as bad as the Great Depression.

"His first speech before a joint session of Congress gave the president an opportunity to counter critics who say he has been too downbeat. Even former President Clinton has been telling Obama to lighten up to boost the nation's morale. In his speech, Obama brought in more of the optimism that was his campaign trademark."

New York Times: "Mr. Obama sought to convince an angry, anxious America that a moment of crisis is actually a time for expanding aspirations, not shrinking horizons . . .

"As he tried to navigate the divide between hope and realism, the vision he articulated was in some ways anything but unifying. His ideas for raising taxes on the wealthy, revamping the health care system and reversing climate change represent a philosophical agenda that strikes at the heart of the other party's core beliefs."

Washington Times: "He used his oratory skills in a format that's served him best throughout his political rise: the prepared speech, in a grand setting, that allows him to transcend the media filter and talk directly to Americans."

Roger Simon: "It was a night when Barack Obama showed why he had been elected president. . . . At moments, his speech had almost Churchillian rhythms to it."

Andrew Sullivan: "I don't recall a more impassioned welcome -- at least since Bush's September 2001 address. You sense even Washington understands the gravity of the moment and want this man to succeed."

New Republic's Jonathan Cohn: "I thought the optimism and emotional uplift was actually pretty sparse tonight. After proclaiming that America would recover, he spent most of his speech describing his plan for making that happen. And he was quite business-like about it."

Bobby Jindal, meanwhile, struck a gracious note by praising the tableau of the first African American president, but his delivery, and emphasis on his personal story, was very odd. Townhall's Amanda Carpenter twitters: " Ok, some conservative needs to start a campaign to fire whoever wrote this cheesy response and coached him to talk like this. I can't watch."

Rich Lowry sees liberalism in just about everything Obama is doing:

"Obama must insist he is going to get the deficit under control, conveniently by doing all the things he already wanted to do: scaling back the Iraq War, raising taxes on the rich, and further nationalizing ('reforming') health care. The first two at least reduce the deficit; the latter is a poorly disguised budget-buster. When has government ever expanded its health-care programs and achieved a cost savings? Only a system of de facto rationing and price controls, two things Obama never mentions when he talks of all the health-care savings that will be achieved by preventive care and better technology, might do it.

"What of measures that a liberal Democrat wouldn't ordinarily undertake, that speak to Obama's post-partisan pragmatism? Obama has said repeatedly that he wants to control entitlements . . . But he has shelved even the commission idea for now under pressure from Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. It's much easier to host a 'summit' on fiscal responsibility, as Obama did on Monday, playing to his strength of earnest, high-minded gab. He wants to make tough, politically difficult choices -- just not yet."

Matt Miller, in the WSJ, says Obama has a larger goal than bipartisanship:

"The president has his eye on a bigger prize than winning a few Republican votes for his stimulus package or having a conservative in his cabinet. He aims to move the political center in America to the left, much as Ronald Reagan moved it to the right. The only way he can achieve this goal is to harness the energies and values of both parties.

"Left and right mean less nowadays, especially to Americans outside Washington. But broadly speaking, Mr. Obama seeks to use government in new ways to bolster opportunity and security in an era when financial crisis, global competition and rapid technological change are calling into question the political and business arrangements on which our prosperity has rested for decades. This is the task that history has assigned this president. The spat between him and his liberal critics is about the way one makes this happen."

An interesting number in the NYT/CBS poll I mentioned yesterday:

"A month into her husband's presidency, Michelle Obama is viewed more positively than were other first ladies in the past 28 years at similar stages, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

"Over all, 49 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Mrs. Obama, 5 percent view her unfavorably and 44 percent do not yet have an opinion."

And how many times did the cameras cut away to her last night?

Rupert says he's sorry for the monkey business:

"Last week, we made a mistake. We ran a cartoon that offended many people. Today I want to personally apologize to any reader who felt offended, and even insulted.

"Over the past couple of days, I have spoken to a number of people and I now better understand the hurt this cartoon has caused. At the same time, I have had conversations with Post editors about the situation and I can assure you -- without a doubt -- that the only intent of that cartoon was to mock a badly written piece of legislation. It was not meant to be racist, but unfortunately, it was interpreted by many as such."

Poetic justice at the Philly Inquirer and Daily News, Chapter 11 style?

"Bankruptcy lawyers say three Philadelphia newspaper executives will roll back their 2008 raises while the company tries to shed debt and stay afloat.

"Chief Executive Brian Tierney's 38 percent pay hike in December has boosted his salary to $850,000."

More depressing news: Hearst has a monopoly in one of America's great cities and still can't make it:

"The San Francisco Chronicle joined the lengthening list of imperiled newspapers Tuesday as its owner set out to purge the payroll and slash other expenses in a last-ditch effort to reverse years of heavy losses. If it can't reduce expenses dramatically within the next few weeks, the Hearst Corp. said it will close or sell the Chronicle."

At New Majority, Conrad Black, the media mogul serving a 78-month term for obstruction of justice and diverting corporate money for personal use, says in a jailhouse interview that he is teaching inmates: "It's very hard work preparing lessons, and surprisingly rewarding to help people."

Speaking of which, when National Review runs a piece by Conrad Black on what Obama should do, shouldn't it identify him with more than is the author of 'Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom' and 'Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full?' Shouldn't it say that he's, like, behind bars?

Newspapers Accept Help From Government -- and this makes me a little queasy:

"For the first time in Minnesota -- and perhaps in the nation -- a journalism school has received a grant to help two daily newspapers adapt their products to an increasingly Internet-based industry.

"The Minnesota Job Skills Partnership program has given the Duluth News Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication a total of $238,000 to help retrain the newspaper staffs."

Finally, this update on a story I mentioned yesterday:

A Baltimore television reporter has lost his job after acknowledging that he doctored a video to make it appear that Fox News radio host John Gibson had made a racial slur.

In the bogus video, which was picked up across the Internet, Gibson seemed to be comparing Attorney General Eric Holder to a monkey with a "bright blue scrotum." There had been chatter on Fox News earlier about such a monkey, which had escaped from a Seattle zoo.

A spokeswoman for WBAL-TV confirmed yesterday that technology reporter John Sanders was no longer employed by the station but declined to comment on whether he had been dismissed. His profile was promptly removed from the NBC affiliate's Web site.

Gibson, who had actually been discussing Holder's comment about America being a "nation of cowards" on racial issues, said in an interview that the fake story has had a "personal" impact on him. "Geez, people will believe anything," he said. "These days it's really dangerous on the Internet. These things go viral, and people don't see the correction and the mea culpa. You can't unring the bell."

In a statement, WBAL said it had learned that a "former" employee "posted a video regarding Fox News' John Gibson and Attorney General Eric Holder on his personal YouTube page without the prior knowledge or consent of anyone at WBAL-TV or Hearst-Argyle Television. . . . This video does not represent the views of WBAL-TV or Hearst-Argyle Television."

YouTube has also removed the clip.

In a telephone interview with Breitbart.tv, Sanders acknowledged doctoring the video. He said he had been watching Fox News and "I just kept hearing the words 'bright blue scrotum,' I thought that was hilarious." Sanders said he thought it would be funny to add that to Gibson's comments about Holder, "as long as I disclosed that he had not actually said it that way, which I did do . . . I don't have anything against John or against Fox . . . I just wanted to share that with a few friends," and "to the extent it became political, I would like to think that others made it political and not me."

The Huffington Post posted the doctored video last week without any disclaimer and without calling Gibson or Fox for comment. After the doctoring was revealed, the liberal Web site published an apology.

"My ire in this situation is directed at the Huffington Post," Gibson said. "I really think this would have been very easy to check. A kid made a mistake and did something goofy, fine. But these guys [at the Huffington Post] claim to be and are regarded by many as a legitimate news organization. It spoke to their bias against me that they went ahead with it."

The Huffington Post has 27 editorial staffers, including reporter Sam Stein, who was called on by President Obama at his first news conference. But much of its content consists of links to stories and videos carried elsewhere and blogs contributed by unpaid outsiders.

Huffington Post spokesman Mario Ruiz said last night: "We found the story on TVNewser, a credible Web site which we often link to. As soon as we found that it was inaccurate, we immediately corrected the story and issued an apology."

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