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.
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.
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."