If it's not entirely clear by now, Obama's presidential speeches are the political equivalent of a Hail Mary pass in the fourth quarter. He knows that, in the clutch, his particular brand of persuasion -- calm, reasoned explanation of why one policy works and another doesn't -- has only grown more effective in a political environment where tea party hysteria is mimicked by members of Congress.
The president's temperament is the subject of eternal speculation from the pundit class. Since he first decided he wanted the job, Obama's cool consistency, alternately praised as "steadiness" or derided as "detachment," has been an obsession, precisely because commentators can't figure out whether it's his Achilles heel or his trump card. Tonight, it seems it was the latter.
Obama's greatest rhetorical strength is that he can't be intimidated. He pivots, he dodges, but he doesn't actually retreat -- even when he seems to. His liberalism has always been one that internalizes conservative criticisms, while still making the case for an activist government. He plays up the efficacy of tax cuts, saying government should "tighten its belt." And he follows with lines about how "it’s time the American people get a government that matches their decency; that embodies their strength."
Even with several rhetorical concessions to conservatism, the president still hit the GOP, and hard. He emphasized, "We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. ... Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership." The president waved his hand at the skeletal agenda offered by Republicans: "The problem is, that’s what we did for eight years. That’s what helped lead us into this crisis. It’s what helped lead to these deficits. And we cannot do it again." He even nodded to the populist outrage over the bailouts that helped birth the tea parties, saying he "hated" the bailouts while describing why they were necessary.
However, the most important words the president had were for his own party. Facing the possibility that health-care reform might die on the operating table at the hands of panicked Democrats, the president remarked, "We still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills." It was doubtlessly a relief for Democrats to finally see that kind of leadership from the president, who has seemed absent as House Democrats have worked diligently to work out a deal even as their colleagues in the Senate have wrung their hands at the prospect of making changes to the bill through reconciliation.
The brief apologies the president has offered -- even the gimmicky spending freeze -- have not changed the leftward trajectory of his agenda: Obama wants to reform the health-care system, restore sanity to financial regulations, turn the economy around, repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, and bring the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to a close. The speech was a nod to conservatism, but a case for liberalism, and conservatives recognize the difference. His reference to the Supreme Court's decision in the recent Citizens United case caused Justice Samuel Alito to have his own private Joe Wilson moment, muttering "That's not true" at mention of the decision.
But ultimately the president understands that the case for an effective government cannot be made by rhetoric. It can only be made by government working. The question of whether the Democratic Party can make government work now lies in the hands of Congress. And in particular, governance is now the responsibility of the Senate, where the preening obstinance and senseless "centrism" of our politicians has ground the agenda the American people voted for in 2008 to a halt.
The question is now whether the president's speech can help pressure the Senate to act.
-- A. Serwer