Obama sure sounded confident last night. Can he make the rest of us feel that way?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 25 2009 12:32 AM

"We Are Not Quitters"

Can Obama turn his confidence into success?

President Barack Obama addresses Congress. Click image to expand.
President Barack Obama addresses Congress

Barack Obama delivered a mixed message in his first address to Congress, so it was fitting that his call for sacrifice and hard choices fell on Mardi Gras, a day reserved for irresponsible revelry. The president tried to give an honest assessment of the current dire economic condition while rallying the country to its strongest traditions of optimism and perseverance. He did it.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Before the speech, the charge against Obama was that he'd been too downbeat about the collapsing economy. Bill Clinton had advised him to bring a little more sunshine. The title of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's Republican response, sent to reporters before Obama started, was "Americans Can Do Anything." It was a counterpoint to what the GOP expected to be a litany of woe. "Don't let anyone tell you that we cannot recover—or that America's best days are behind her," said Jindal.That Obama was sapping confidence in the economy was a potentially potent story line. With the Dow Jones industrial average hitting historic lows, the political tactic was to tie Obama's supposed lack of optimism to a falling market.

The charge was a little dubious—markets move for their own reasons—and the Dow was actually up more than 200 points Tuesday. But the president and his aides were eager to push back against this idea. Their strategy was twofold. First, Obama made Wall Street executives a regular boogeyman in his speech, responsible for our economic decline as they fed their profligate ways, in order to make the point that any reaction from Wall Street is not to be trusted. Next, aides went to work blowing sunshine. The speech excerpts they released in time for the evening news approximated the aphorisms you see on inspirational posters next to pictures of adorable cats.

Obama came into the evening with a lot of support. According to the latest CBS/New York Times poll, people are patient about change, and yet they're optimistic that Obama will take them to a better place. When Obama entered the House chamber, the optimism was on full display. He looked like a guy who was in command and having fun. He also looked as if he belonged in the chamber. He was not there to deliver a formal State of the Union address but he had to go through nutty rituals anyway—the afternoon lunch with television network anchors, the deep-tissue massage from lawmakers lining the House aisle, the endless applause.

Atmospherics only take a president so far, but if part of a president's job is looking as if he sees better days ahead, it helps to play the part. The comparison with Ronald Reagan's speech in February 1981 is striking. Reagan also faced a brutal economy, but the man known for his supernatural optimism was less sunny than Obama in his first address to Congress. Reagan described a country where, for the unemployed, "despair dominates their lives," and the ship of state was "out of control." He spent the bulk of the speech outlining his policies and very little energy on the innate character of the country. "There has been no breakdown of the human, technological, and natural resources upon which the economy is built," he said.

Advertisement

Obama regularly asserted his belief in America's ability to rally—and he did so by creating inspiration through telling the kinds of stories that worked so well for him during the campaign. The emotional highlight of the evening came when he read from a letter by Ty'Sheoma Bethea, a young student from Dillon, S.C. who had written to Congress: "We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself, and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters."

As he sketched his plans for health care and energy independence, the president returned repeatedly to America's history of greatness. And he made strong moral claims. When talking about high-school dropouts, he spoke directly to a patriotic duty: "Dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country—and this country needs and values the talents of every American."

The speech was also a test of Obama's power to persuade. In his first press conference, he played the professor, giving long answers that diagrammed perfectly but that lacked the emotional resonance of his campaign. In his quasi-State of the Union performance, he was far more like the Obama of the campaign trail. He showed how well he can use the bully pulpit that comes with his office to explain his plan, explain why he thinks it's necessary and to show that he understands some measures, like the bank bail out, are unpopular. As he said at one point, "I get it."

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Never Remember Anything
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 2:44 PM Where Do I Start With Mystery Science Theater 3000?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.