Leaving aside the specifics of what he said — or what he didn’t say yet, but hinted at — the largest political benefit of President Obama’s address to Congress (and the nation) last night may have been how he said it.
As E.J. Dionne wrote for the Washington Post,
The best part of President Obama’s speech … was his hammering over and over the need to pass “this bill” … [instead of] “we can work this out,” or, “I look forward to talking to Speaker Boehner.”
Or, as Mark Schmitt of the implausibly-still-around TNR put it,
… at least for the moment, Obama solved a persistent, deadly problem in his basic theory of politics: There was no Plan B.
To understand what an enormous change this was for Obama & Co., you need to remember that his inner circle came to office obsessed with not repeating the presumed mistake of the Clinton administration when its healthcare reform bill ran aground in 1994 — namely, proposing a comprehensive plan up front, and letting it be gradually nicked to death, with every alteration and dimunition being read as a “defeat for the president.”
So the hallmark of the Obama presidency to date has been timidity: offering up “principles” rather than legislation, accepting whatever could be eked through Congress with least amount of political capital expended, and calling it a victory (even if, in substantive terms, it wasn’t).
Now, though, for the moment at least, Barack Obama has chucked the preemptive-compromise and reasonable-adult-in-the-room approach, in favor of some old-fashioned political gamesmanship and even… gasp!… defiant rhetoric, and it’s about freakin’ time. A Democratic pollster’s summary of the speech’s impact on a focus group of swing voters reported:
In addition to producing much improved scores for having good ideas for improving the economy, the speech produced major jumps in the proportion of respondents describing Obama as “a strong leader” and as being “honest and realistic in addressing the country’s challenges”…. Many respondents came into the room feeling discouraged, dispirited, and disappointed, but in last night’s speech they saw the Barack Obama they had hoped they were electing in 2008.
Say what? Independent voters responded positively to a more combative, uncompromising speech?! Well, duh. Obama’s winning slogan in 2008, after all, wasn’t “Change the tone,” is was “Hope” and “Change we can believe in.” It’s way, way late to try and champion those themes again, but if only for nostalgia value as an example for someone to pick up and do better next time, the effort is welcome.