An American president can't expect a large real-time audience for an hour-long, policy-dense speech delivered in the middle of the work day. But the timing of his speech at Georgetown University just now was fine for me, around midnight in Beijing, and for the moment these real-time thoughts.
What I liked about the speech:
- Obama crafted the message with an intellectual thoroughness and emotional steadiness that I think will impress its real audience: not the students sitting at Georgetown or those like me watching live, but the politicians, financiers, and members of the commentariat who will read the text and respond after a little while. He showed he was aware of criticisms and was willing to state them in recognizable form before offering his rebuttal. (Think of the contrast of GW Bush or Cheney acknowledging criticism of their strategy and world view. Or even Richard Nixon.)
Eg: People say this plan is too jumbled. In fact, here is how the pieces fit together. People say we're spending like crazy. In fact, here's why we can't cut government spending just now, while consumers and businesses are cutting too -- but why we have to cut in the longer term. People say that we're coddling the banks. In fact, here is what we don't like about what banks have done but why they're necessary to a recovery. It is SO easy in political rhetoric to assume that the audience is dumb and that you can burlesque the other side's argument. Nixon, in fact, was great at this. ("There are those who say we should cut and run...") I didn't see Obama doing this once.
- He used analogies that were homely, accessible, and clarifying without being patronizing. Eg, "Just as a cash-strapped family may cut back on luxuries but will insist on spending money to get their children through college, so we as a country have to make current choices with an eye on the future. If we don't invest now in renewable energy or a skilled workforce or a more affordable health care system, this economy simply won't grow at the pace it needs to in two or five or ten years down the road." These are harder to come up with than they seem.
- Pushing just hard enough with a vivid metaphor, that of building on a rock. Viz:
There is a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells
the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand,
and it was destroyed as soon as the storm hit. But the second is
known as the wise man, for when "...the rain descended, and the floods
came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house...it fell not: for
it was founded upon a rock."
We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must
build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth
and prosperity - a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow
and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at
home and send more exports abroad.
What I wasn't so crazy about: personal tics (of my own) in both cases.
- Maybe it's only veterans of the Carter Administration who remember this, but "new foundations," a leitmotif of this speech, was also the motto of one of Carter's State of the Union addresses 30 years ago. The phrase didn't catch on then. Or maybe it's been three decades in gestation.
- Obama has apparently decided to embrace, as an affirmative policy rather than an ad-libbed nervous tic, ending his big speeches with "God Bless the United States of America." It's there in the prepared text, not thrown in on scene. Oh well. Every speech has its shortcomings.
But on the whole, a quite impressive job. No matter your view of his policies before this speech - hostile, lukewarm, enthusiastic -- reasonable people would have to be moved an increment toward a more positive view by the speech.*
* Oddly, the speech text itself seems not yet to be available on the WhiteHouse.gov site. (When they come up with it, it will be here.) Instead, again oddly, there is a blog item about the speech, with some excerpts. Come on guys, this is Gov 1.0-era thinking. UPDATE: The as-delivered transcription of the speech is now online here, for some reason classified under "Remarks" rather than "Speeches."
Update 2: A reader reminds me that Jimmy Carter was far from the first to talk about "new foundations." Eg:
No more tradition's chains shall bind us,
Arise you slaves, no more in thrall!
The earth shall rise on new foundations
From the Internationale. Daniel Patrick Moynihan made that point about Carter's speech soon after it was delivered.
Update 3: Ah, how the mists of time cloud these things! The Internationale rhapsodized about new foundations, while Jimmy Carter spoke movingly about a new foundation. Thanks to my former Carter collaborator (and successor) Rick Hertzberg.