Big Surprise: Obama Makes an Impressive Speech

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For a speech that wasn't a State of the Union, last night looked a hell of a lot like a State of the Union. The theatrics were all there — the procession into the chamber, the strategic applause (Arlen Specter appeared to be the lone Republican to clap for the stimulus), and, of course, a broad look at where our country stands and where it's headed. Remarkably, President Obama was able to turn the fairly dire state of our union into an opportunity — specifically, for reforming the health-care system, energy policy, and education. Ideological adversaries are predictably quibbling with the role that government will play in Obama's plans, but for the most part, the feeling out in the Internet world is that last night's speech was a success.

• Andrew Sullivan calls it "perfectly pitched: a form a liberal patriotism that eschews the kind of politics the American people are sick of. A tour de force." [Atlantic]

• Michael Tomasky calls it "a fantastic speech that defines a new era in this country." On domestic issues, "Obama was passionate and smart, and his framing was pitch perfect." [Guardian UK]

• The New York Times editorial board says Obama "rose to the occasion," sounding "confident — promising that the nation will rebuild and 'emerge stronger than before' — without minimizing the grave problems that must first be surmounted." [NYT]

• The Wall Street Journal editorial board laments that instead of moderating his policy ambitions, Obama "made clear in his first State of the Union address that he believes in government power as the answer to our current difficulties, and he intends to use it." [WSJ]

• Jake Tapper predicts that Obama has made himself his own toughest opponent with the speech. It will be tough to measure up to "all those promises he made to the American people." [Political Punch/ABC News]

• Noah Pollack agrees that Obama "made a lot of promises and predictions tonight, and tethered them to policies with his name on them. If the economy doesn’t get better — or if his administration does not rise to foreign challenges — he will face a difficult re-election campaign." [Contentions/Commentary]

• Michael Goldfarb claims that "Obama seems intent on running a permanent campaign, and he's still making the kind of over-the-top promises that campaigns toss around like Monopoly money." [Blog/Weekly Standard]

• Joan Walsh revels in the "the combative, feisty, populist Obama I wanted — probably mistakenly, since he won — to see during the presidential campaign." [Salon]

• The Economist thinks it was very clever "because he pulled back from his previous warnings of catastrophe, but without downplaying the seriousness of the situation," "because he presented the Democratic agenda (particularly greenery and educational spending) as the stimulus that the economy needs," and "because he threw a few bones to the non-liberals listening in the form of promises about charter schools." [Lexington's Notebook/Economist]

• Craig Crawford claims that though presidents really "cannot lose" in these situations, "Obama mastered the night better than most." [CQ Politics]

• Mark Halperin lists fifteen things we learned. Number fifteen: "The man can give a heck of a speech — and has a close to perfect record of delivering at big moments." [Page/Time]

• Marc Ambinder thinks the key phrase was "long-term investments." [Atlantic]

• Mike Madden notes Obama's "delivery, as usual, was masterful" — "he kept speaking over the ovations, which added energy to the address without slowing it down; where Bill Clinton used to bask in applause, Obama used it to power himself along." [Salon]

• Ezra Klein appreciates that "Obama doesn't talk to us like we're stupid. This wasn't an inspiring speech. And it wasn't a terrorizing speech. It was an explanation." [American Prospect]

• John Dickerson writes that Obama gave "an honest assessment of the current dire economic condition while rallying the country to its strongest traditions of optimism and perseverance." [Slate]

• William Kristol was unimpressed by the "perfunctory" treatment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "This was not the speech of a man who thinks of himself as a war president." [Post Partisan/WP]

• Richard Cohen calls the speech "more aspiration than plan, more intention that rhetorical spread sheet. Still, the man on the rostrum last night was fully in command, seeming to relish — the echo of FDR’s jaunty cigarette holder in his bit — the challenge that lies ahead." [Post Partisan/WP]

• Walter Shapiro believes what mattered most "were the president's efforts to explain his plans to voters unsophisticated in the nuances of economic policy." It was his "best shot to inoculate himself against the simplistic worldviews of Joe the Plumber and Rick the CNBC Reporter." [Plank/New Republic]

• Franklin Foer liked that the "optimism was there in a credible dose and dressed in patriotism. Above all, he sounds like a guy in charge, which is inherently reassuring." [Plank/New Republic]

• Jonathan Cohn thinks "it's hard to imagine another speech could have served Obama's larger agenda more effectively." [Plank/New Republic]

• Peter Wehner believes "[w]e witnessed a young man at the height of his political power, supremely confident and self-possessed, who is determined to rush through his extremely ambitious agenda." But he's made vulnerable by the "gap between his command of the theater and aesthetics of politics v. the substance and execution of policy." [Contentions/Commentary]

• Rich Lowry says Obama "portrays himself as something of a fiscal conservative despite his promises of massive new government programs," which may have "sounded good to most Americans, who desperately want Obama to succeed." [NYP]

• Michael G. Franc was dismayed that "after capturing so beautifully the essence of American exceptionalism, Obama somehow transformed it into his call for more government." [Corner/National Review]

• Marie Cocco says that "[f]or the first time, the president took a teachable moment on the banking crisis and used the instructional time fairly well." [Post Partisan/WP]

• David Corn contends that "[i]t's been years since any BMOC in Washington has presented such an extensive and well-articulated plan for — dare one say it — change." [Mother Jones]