State of the Union Reactions

HOWARD MEGDAL: There is much that President Obama did well in tonight’s speech, though how much the speech succeeded will ultimately be determined by legislative action and the voters in 2010. But the most vital part of President Obama’s speech Wednesday night was placing the Democratic Party on the side of regulating Wall Street.

From a policy perspective, this benefit is clear- taking steps that can put an end to boom-and-bust cycles that reflect outsized risk. The populist anger over this turn of events actually reflects a reality that can and should be altered through regulatory means.

But from a political point of view, such a position is pitch-perfect for the times. It reflects the anger within the country, and the GOP has no real response. Take all of the anti-Wall Street measures proposed by the President tonight. Notice that Republicans did not stand and applaud a single one of them- a rough but accurate measure of the GOP support any of these are likely to enjoy.

The Republicans can’t, of course- they have a right-wing base that opposes all government intervention, and a financial structure built largely on the super-rich. The Democrats can lose by failing to attack the problems caused by Wall Street, but the Republicans certainly cannot win by doing so- not without splitting the party in the process.

The words on health care reform, jobs, even deficits were welcome- the Bob McDonnell response made it clear the only feasible GOP line of attack is over spending, so Obama is going a long way toward dulling that with his freeze. But it is regulating Wall Street that will make or break Democratic political fortunes in 2010. And by putting it first, President Obama made it clear that he recognizes this political reality, a year late, but clearly not a year too late.

JESSICA BADER: The thing that struck me the most about Barack Obama’s first official State of the Union address was how comfortable, how in his element, he seemed while giving it. Even knowing what a gifted speaker the President is and the sense of calm he projects even when the going gets tough, I would have expected some amount of nervousness to seep through as he delivered this speech that will supposedly determine the fate of his presidency (at least until the pundits determine another pivotal moment to fixate on). Instead, he was witty and self-deprecating, not afraid to riff off of the reactions of the audience immediately in front of him even as he was explaining his agenda to the audience watching on a screen.

Explaining was a key theme of the evening, and it’s something this president does especially well. Obama devoted a good deal of time to walking America through the bailout and why it was necessary, through the Recovery Act and what it is doing, and through the causes of the massive deficits the country is facing (on this topic attacking the policies rather than blaming Bush by name). He forcefully rejected the idea that tough economic circumstances should scale back his ambitions (the “I do not accept second place for the United States of America” applause line was a particularly effective counterpunch), managed to decry the hyperpartisanship currently on display in Congress while acknowledging that some of the gap can’t be bridged because of deep philosophical differences between the two parties, and embraced the sort of populism that fits his persona (threatening to veto financial reform if it’s too watered down, allowing some of the Bush tax cuts to expire, framing the recent Supreme Court decision on campaign spending as the American people versus foreign corporations).

While he didn’t lay out a specific way forward on healthcare reform, he did stress important elements of the bills that both houses have passed and that quitting now was not an option (explicitly reminding Democrats that they still have large majorities in both houses later on in the speech was a nice touch, and perhaps all too necessary after the past week). The repeated emphasis on the need for the Senate to take action on legislation that has already passed the House (from a jobs bill to financial reform to climate-change legislation to student loan reform) was both a call to action and an acknowledgement of the House’s frustration with the Senate (a frustration that has made negotiations over the healthcare reform endgame especially tricky).

There were a couple of segments of the SotU I could have done without. The emphasis on nuclear power and offshore drilling and all of the other things that will have to be dangled as carrots to get Republicans and pollution-state Democrats in the Senate on board with cap-and-trade was less than thrilling to hear, as was the announcement of a freeze on non-defense discretionary spending and the framing of it as tightening the government’s belt the way families have had to do. I felt like the latter was an unnecessary concession to problematic ideas about the role of deficit spending, especially for a president more than capable of laying out the case against 1937-style fiscal austerity.

Expectations are always high for major Obama speeches, and while the SotU was far from perfect, I think it more than lived up to the expectations and did what it had to do, in reminding the country how we got to where we are and how we can get to someplace better, in reassuring the base that he hadn’t forgotten about major priorities such as immigration reform and ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and in prodding Congress to stop bickering and get to work. There must of course be action to back up these words, but tonight was a necessary first step to gear up for that action.

CHRIS PUMMER: Like Obama has done throughout his time in the national spotlight, he found the right words, delivered them the right way and at just the right time.

The President needed to reassert his political agenda, reassure his left flank within the Democratic party and leave the door open for Republicans with the reminder that he still holds huge legislative majorities and a veto pen.

He did those things, but the loudest reverberations will need to be outside of the Beltway. Obama needed to articulate his legislative prerogative clearly for public consumption as a way to beat back the narrative that’s taken hold in the media that he and his party were beaten.

Obama certainly did that with as much charm and accessibility as any president that ranked as a great communicator, including Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.

Provided Obama and the Dems leap the last heath care hurdle, the worst of their political damage will have been suffered. It will be time for the President and the party to focus on the more populist elements of their agenda that Howard and Jessica have mentioned.

Obama laid the groundwork for that.

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