Alex Massie

President Obama Meets Candidate Obama

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Well that was long. 70 minutes in fact. And, as the genre demands, there was a considerable gap between Presidential rhetoric and anything that is actually likely to happen. Do you really believe, now that Obama has promised this, that American exports will double in five years? Of course not.

Ezra Klein has a useful summary of the laundry list of promises here and the full text is here. Some of those pledges - the call for new nuclear power stations and for more off-shore oil exploration - were co-opted from the Republican playbook but that doesn't make them any more likely to happen. Nor, despite a reference to doing so, will this Congress really push for trade liberalisation. And, of course, there was the usual bashing of lobbyists and foreigners that we've also come to expect on these occasions.

Others were simply bitterly ironic. For instance, his declaration that when it comes to education, "In this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than their potential" sits poorly alongside his administration's role in killing DC's tiny, but popular, school voucher programme.

Elsewhere, the pledge to end the ban on gays serving in the military though, as he rightly put it, "the right thing to do" was downgraded to a commitment to "work with Congress and the military." Immigration reform came and went in a single sentence, hardly suggesting that the White House wants to move on such a contentious issue this year.

And although there was a rhetorical concession to conservatives - when families must tighten their belts, so must the government - this was, as might be expected, a very Democratic speech. There was no suggestion that there might be limits on what the government can achieve or areas in which the government could do less (this actually broke with precedents set by both Carter and Clinton). Indeed, despite concerns over the long-term fiscal situation, Obama called for major increases in spending across the board. Not by name or number, of course, but by impication - if, that is,  many of these promises are meant to be considered more than the standard kind of aspirational boilerplate we expect on these occasions.

And while lip service was also paid to the notion that there could be good faith disagreement with the President; the underlying message was that such opposition is only and always obstructionism. It's not, for instance, as though there aren't alternative health plans out there. Granted, not many of those ideas have come from Congressional Republicans but still...

Much of the speech was oddly bland. There were few memorable lines, though "How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold?" perhaps came closest to recapturing the fierce urgency of now that animated Obama on the campaign trail. This too was a call to arms for action and it was noticeable that Obama seemed to side with House Democrats rather than his former colleagues in the Senate. As an indication of where his heart lies that seems appropriate.

And yet the speech was also punctuated with curious moments of levity that made it seem as though this was Obama the Candidate addressing a townhall meeting in Iowa. This wasn't necessarily ineffective, merely notable, and one did wonder what the reaction migth have been had George W Bush seemed quite so amused by his own jokelets and off-the-cuff asides.

No matter. After a downbeat opening - deliberatly so - Obama responded to the polls by concentrating on the economy. His defence of a stimulus package that's not hugely popular was effective. If he declined to offer much of a way forward on health care then that may simply reflect the fact that there's been so much talk on health care already.

Foreign policy received very little, even perfunctory, attention. Understandably, given the electorate's economic concerns. Missing was any mention of Israel and Palestine or Guantanamo Bay or Pakistan or Cuba. Well, you can't cover eveything and, alas, like his predecessor Obama's brief mention of human rights continues to rub against American support for leaders such as Hosni Mubarak. There are good reasons for that support, for sure, but...

On Iran there was merely the vow that "as Iran’s leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences." What those will be was left for another day.

Still, reasonably enough, he challenged Congress to do better and this and the peroration were the best parts of the speech. It's not a coincidence that they were also the bits that reminded one of the Obama we saw on the campaign trail. Thus:

So no, I will not give up on changing the tone of our politics.  I know it’s an election year.  And after last week, it is clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual.  But we still need to govern.  To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills.  And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well.  Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership.  We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. So let’s show the American people that we can do it together.  This week, I’ll be addressing a meeting of the House Republicans.  And I would like to begin monthly meetings with both the Democratic and Republican leadership.  I know you can’t wait. 

I campaigned on the promise of change – change we can believe in, the slogan went.  And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren’t sure if they still believe we can change – or at least, that I can deliver it.

Remember this - I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone. Democracy in a nation of three hundred million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That's just how it is.

Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths. We can do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation.

But I also know this: if people had made that decision fifty years ago or one hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, we wouldn't be here tonight. The only reason we are is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard; to do what was needed even when success was uncertain; to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and grandchildren.

Our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved.  But I wake up every day knowing that they are nothing compared to the setbacks that families all across this country have faced this year.  And what keeps me going – what keeps me fighting – is that despite all these setbacks, that spirit of determination and optimism – that fundamental decency that has always been at the core of the American people – lives on.  

Quite so. Here at last was the theme of the speech and the framework around which it could have been built. This, I think, would have been an even better opening than a conclusion. Sure, it reads as though it's the sort of thing any President might say but there was a conviction to Obama's voice at this moment, a seriousness of purpose and a hint of self-knowledge that lifted it above the commonplace and reminded one that there were many and good reasons why he won both the Democratic nomination and the Presidency in 2008.

Other reactions: Joe Klein loved it; Andrew Sullivan's live-blogging was pretty enthusiastic; the Reason crew less so, Steve Clemons wanted more economic populism, Jon Chait thought it dull, cheap and successful. Ezra Klein says the follow-through needs to match the speech, Toby Harnden says it was uninspiring.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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