Some thoughts about last night’s address to a joint session of Congress:
1. President Obama is a person of extraordinary, and in some respects phenomenal, political skills. In this regard, he ranks among the best we have seen in the last half-century. It’s not simply his capacity to deliver a speech well; it’s his ability to both frame and explain issues, to employ just the right pitch, to sound reasonable and reassuring. We 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. He will probably succeed in getting a lot of it pushed through.
2. The danger for Obama lies in the gap between his command of the theater and aesthetics of politics v. the substance and execution of policy. The former matters some; the latter matters most, especially when you are attempting to reorganize huge segments of the American economy. And here, I think, is where Obama is vulnerable. The markets — which are not seduced by charm, a million watt smile, and a nice turn of phrase — have reacted quite negatively to Obama’s plans, or in some instances (like banking policy) his failure to produce a plan at all. As one person in the financial world told the Washington Post yesterday, “Basically, the market’s giving you no vote of confidence on the Obama administration’s approach to solving the economic woes the country is facing.” The gap between how Obama described the so-called stimulus bill and the actual legislation underscores my point; contrary to promises of a new approach to politics, the bill embodied the worst of Congress (ramming through a 1,000 page bill, the most costly in our history, without a single member having read it) and the worst of the modern Democratic Party (using an economic crisis to fulfill a decades-old spending wish list). There are costs to things like this. At some point, reality intrudes, and it can be jarring.
3. What was perhaps most striking in the speech is what it ignored: national security. It is kind of extraordinary, really: last week President Obama ordered an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, yet there was no effort in last night’s speech to put this decision in any larger context. The same is true of Iraq; almost nothing was said about it. It was almost as if America was not at war and militant Islam has evaporated as a threat. It hasn’t, of course. We can only hope that Obama’s lack of rhetorical interest on national security affairs doesn’t reflect a governing indifference to it. If it does, there are grounds to be quite alarmed. Obama is the only commander-in-chief we have; he cannot simply continue to pretend that part of his job description is an after-thought. As William Kristol put it, “This was not the speech of a man who thinks of himself as a war president. But he is.”
President Obama remains the dominant, and even the overwhelming, political figure in America today. He owns the stage and the spotlight. He also owns the economy and many of the hotspots in the world. When it comes to policy, he is getting his way. We’ll see soon enough if his theories and approach to government are vindicated.