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Tom Shales on TV: President Obama is tough during the State of the Union

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From the speech: The president talks about his administration's record on cutting taxes, taking $30 billion repaid by big financial firms and turning it over to community banks, breaking ground on a high-speed rail initiative, a spending freeze in 2011, and national security.

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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010

Americans watch the State of the Union speech largely to check out the state of the president. And the state of Barack Obama appears to be rough, tough and undaunted, though it would be going too far to say it's now "No more Mr. Nice Guy."

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The president came on strong, breathing fire before the assembled members of the House and Senate. "We don't quit, I don't quit," Obama said of Americans and himself during the stirring final moments of the speech, which took 71 minutes to deliver from the House chamber -- and which was carried live on broadcast and news networks.

"I never suggested that change would be easy or that I could do it alone," said Obama, which was as close as he came to apologizing. Indeed, it seemed unusual for him to bring up his own campaign slogan -- "Change we can believe in" -- after a year in office when many people had disregarded it.

"He was very assertive tonight," said Bob Schieffer of CBS News. On ABC, George Stephanopoulos found both speech and president to be "unapologetic." Obama did concede that the year ended with goals unmet and some mistakes made by his administration, but he refused to whimper or express regret.

On the other hand, Obama certainly didn't shy away from taking credit for salvaging the economy, avoiding "a second Depression" or creating new jobs and other accomplishments, real or exaggerated. Nevertheless, he insisted near the beginning of the speech that he was "never more hopeful about America's future than I am tonight" -- a bit of bravado that earned him the first of several standing ovations.

Often the Republicans sat out the standing O's or sat motionless while the Democrats applauded and hollered. When the president said he was determined to cut taxes and even the Republicans clapped, Obama smiled and said: "I thought I'd get some applause on that one."

Obama does have the ability to snatch humility from the jaws of hubris. While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pontificated about how honored and thrilled she was to be able to introduce the great and wonderful man, the expression on Obama's face, even the cock of his head, suggested he was basking and glowing in the praise.

But later on, in the speech itself, he showed himself to be capable of healthful self-mockery.

After announcing his intention to hold regular weekly meetings with Republican and Democratic leadership, Obama said with a softly sarcastic smile, "I know you can't wait." Earlier he used the same understated tone when he told the crowd: "By now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics."

Obama turned deadly serious on several occasions when talking about issues that he indicated were taxing his patience to the extreme. Still on the subject of health care, he said of those living in hardship and neglected by the system as it now exists: "I will not walk away from these Americans and neither should the people in this chamber."

He attacked the Supreme Court for a recent pro-business decision while the justices sat there, pouting before him. He struck a no-nonsense tone with such declarations as, "I want a jobs bill on my desk without delay." And if lobbyists overly influence the bill, Obama threatened, "I will send it back until we get it right."

There was humility but no remorse in Obama's words or the way in which he delivered them. He hailed and commended American values and seemed also to personify some of them -- directness, candor, neighborliness. At moments he was less the man in the White House than the guy next door.

Once or twice during the speech, the pool director cut to a visually thrilling overhead shot of the entire chamber -- but the shot wasn't on the screen for very long. Maybe it was thought that the stunning visual threatened to distract the audience from the speech and the man giving it -- but really, they could have had a live shot of purple people-eaters watching from Mars and not upstaged Obama.

As a persuasive political speaker, he's got no serious competition.


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