Obama's first State of the Union Address
The Post asked experts to assess Obama's first State of the Union Address.
Lead writer of President George W. Bush's last two State of the Union Addresses; author of "Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack"
Listening to President Obama's speech, I could not help wondering how different this night would have been had Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's bomb not malfunctioned. Four weeks ago our country was the target of a catastrophic terrorist attack. But for the grace of God, Northwest Flight 253 would have crashed into downtown Detroit, killing thousands. Yet just a month later, it is an afterthought for this president. His only mention of the failed attack was a passing reference that he was responding with "better airline security."
Worse, the president's brief discussion of terrorism focused not on what he was doing to defend the country but was, rather, a vigorous defense of himself. His first words on the subject were a chastisement of those who would dare criticize his handling of terrorism, declaring that "all of us love this country" and warning his Republican critics to "put aside the schoolyard taunts about who is tough." It's all about him. No acknowledgement of how close we came to disaster or praise for the brave passengers who subdued the terrorist. No, only this message for his critics: If you question the wisdom of telling a captured terrorist "you have the right to remain silent," you are really questioning the president's patriotism and engaging in childish taunts.
The fact is, the American people have real concerns about Obama's approach to terrorism. They do question the wisdom of eliminating CIA interrogations, closing Guantanamo Bay, bringing the terrorists held there to this country, putting Khalid Shiekh Mohammed and his cohorts on trial in civilian courts, and giving captured terrorists Miranda rights after 50 minutes of questioning. Instead of acknowledging these concerns, Obama dismissed them. It was strange, defensive, arrogant -- and un-presidential.
Clinton White House speech writer, 1993-1995 and author of "The Political Speechwriter's Companion"
Even a great speaker surrounded by good writers can't wrestle out of the rhetorical straightjacket of the State of the Union -- and Barack Obama and his writers didn't.
But they came as close as anyone could at accomplishing three essential -- and contradictory tasks.
1. Admit error -- but remind us of success. People like a president willing to admit failure -- especially if he's disappointed them. Massachusetts showed that to be the case. "Our administration had setbacks -- some¿deserved," Obama said. But he lost no time making the case for accomplishments ("the worst of the storm has passed").
2. Focus on the concerns that put Brown in the Senate -- but fight for the plans that put Obama in the White House. The economy came first ("One in ten cannot find work.") But Obama rejected the idea that he was "too ambitious" with a surprisingly long defense of health-care reform. In other words, no minimalist approach. That was effective. You can sometimes kill giants with a slingshot, but the odds are against you.
3. Show viewers he's not just smart but likeable. There were some flashes of eloquence ("The numbing weight of our politics). But Obama cracked jokes ("popular as a root canal,") looked winningly up at his wife -- has any president ever called his wife "Hon," before? -- and spoke in a way average folks could understand -- the speech tests at a ninth grade level.
Were there problems? Sure. Nobody can give a 7000-word speech with proposal after proposal and hold our attention all the time. And a few times Obama lapsed into the straw-man arguments he uses too much -- who in the chamber does accept "second place" status for this country?
Finally, as usual, the State of the Union highlights one problem that is not his fault: its small role for the minority responder reminds us our politics lacks any moment where a president goes one-on-one with the opposition. They do that in other countries. They should here.
But that calls for another kind of event. Wednesday's showed not just an immensely skillful speaker, but a speech written by an immensely skillful committee. Now? They just have to govern that way.
DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN
Democratic pollster and author, most recently, of "The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, from the Grassroots to the White House"
The problem with President Obama's State of the Union address is that it had something for everybody. For those concerned about the economy, the president called for a new jobs bill. For those who want deficit reduction, the president offered his spending freeze. For those concerned about an embattled middle class, he endorsed programs to facilitate child and parental care as well as across-the-board education assistance (underscoring his administration's commitment to showing that it understands the electorate's pain). And for those who wanted some populist rhetoric, well, we heard that as well.
But this well-crafted and well-delivered speech did not explain what President Obama actually stands for, nor how his administration plans to fight the midterm elections, other than to focus in general terms on the still-teetering economy. It remains to be seen if the administration will make bipartisan efforts going into the elections, or if it will continue to veer left (and populist) and follow the Democratic Party's agenda, despite the president's falling approval rating and the electorate's increasing unhappiness with leaders in Washington.
A fundamental question is whether the president will be able to accomplish any of the popular initiatives he spoke of tonight. It is also unclear whether he will be able to avoid blame over an increasingly unpopular health-care plan that shows little sign of being passed any time soon, notwithstanding Obama's renewed commitment to passing at least some of its components.
Ultimately, what Obama was not able to do tonight, and probably will not be able to do, is run against Congress. Harry Truman did it, and Bill Clinton did it after the 1994 midterm debacle. If Barack Obama is to have any electoral success this year, the institution he addressed tonight will inevitably have to become the focal point to tackle people's very real concerns about how government in Washington operates.