Heilemann: Obama Takes Ownership of the Crisis

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Before Barack Obama’s speech last night to a joint session of Congress, the central question in the blah-blah-blahosphere was whether he would strike the appropriate balance between sobriety and optimism — meaning whether he’d stop being such a sourpuss and smile, smile, smile. The meme that Obama has been perhaps a mite too dour during his first month in office had been been picking up steam ever since Bill Clinton remarked late last week that, while he was pleased that Obama “didn’t come in and give us a bunch of happy talk,” he would like the new president to declare that “he is hopeful and completely convinced we're gonna come through this.”

Obama and his people have privately expressed some frustration with such chatter, and so they sought to put it to rest ASAP — with a ringing, sound-bite-worthy affirmation right off the bat that “we will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”

The rest of the speech was shot through with similar, though more subtle, infusions of yes-we-canism. And that was fine as far as it went. Americans are, no doubt, wracked with insecurity and fear as they watch the Dow tumble almost daily and the unemployment numbers rocket ever-skyward. But I suspect that what they want more than reassurance from Obama is a sense that he has both a handle on the crisis and a plan for ending the slide and putting the country on a path to recovery.

It was here that Obama’s performance struck me as especially impressive — an artful blend of style and substance, exhortation and exposition. For anyone who covered the Obama campaign, there was a kind of greatest-hits feeling to the thing, but at least five aspects of the speech stood as particularly well-suited to both the setting and the moment confronting the country.

1. By citing the railroads, the public school system, the interstate highway system, the GI Bill, and the moon shot, Obama deployed history to rebut the Republican argument that all government spending is inimical to innovation and entrepreneurship, let alone ruinously wasteful — “In each case, government didn't supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise” — while at the same time driving the theme that crises are times for boldness, not timidity.

2. Without resorting to a laundry list of programs or unfurling an array of statistics, he reaffirmed his commitment to virtually his entire campaign agenda, a move designed both to buck up his base and to remind his opponents of his decisive victory last November and the mandate it conferred.

3. He was empathic and specific when it came to a number of critical areas of policy and principle. His declaration that “without exception or equivocation ... the United States of America does not torture” was, of course, the most glaring example here. But equally important was his pledge to pursue health-care reform aggressively this year.

4. He struck just the right balance between populism and realism when it comes to the rescue and reformation of the financial sector — bashing Wall Street just enough to assure the electorate that he feels its rage, while at the same time explaining clearly and compellingly why bailing out the scoundrels who helped wreck the economy is necessary unless we want to let them drag us down into the toilet with them.

5. Finally, Obama not only looked and acted like an adult, but he dared to treat us all as if we’re adults, too. That Obama knows what he’s talking about is not subject to much debate; he has always radiated intelligence and competence, even at his lowest moments. What was more striking last night was the degree to which he was operating on the assumption that the citizenry is capable of keeping up. He didn’t dumb down, didn’t oversimplify, didn’t adopt the singsongy tones of a flamboyantly patient schoolteacher (all qualities that, it should be noted, made Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, in his televised riposte to Obama, come across like an Indian-American Forrest Gump).

Whether this approach will pay dividends down the road is an open question. In the end, the speech was … well, just a speech. In the past month, Obama has taken ownership of the hydra-headed crisis facing the country — and his presidency will ultimately be judged on how effective his actions, not his words, prove to be in addressing it. Obama, of course, understands this better than anyone. That he seems to welcome it may be the most confidence-inspiring thing about him.