The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Not Quitters

Everyone was quick to emphasize that President Obama’s address last night to a joint session of Congress was momentously important and yet not a State of the Union speech. By what designation then should we call his oration?

In some ways, Obama delivered a reckoning, much along the lines he has been using to describe the current economic crisis since taking office. In his verdict, blame rests on everyone – from government to banks to citizens buying bigger homes than they knew they could afford. Yet there was also a distinctly upbeat side to his judgment as well.

“While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this – We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”

The applause that met this line was a combination of encouragement and relief. Pundits and politicians alike had begun to worry that Obama’s truth telling was too gloomy to promote his programs for recovery. In attempting to reflect what was really happening, they worried Obama was depressing markets and public confidence even further.

Was the President cynical? Disheartened? Even fearful?

Obama blew away such concerns last night. His instrument of choice for doing so was not rhetoric like the example above but rather the dizzying breadth of his proposals.

In addition to promising we would bring a credit crisis, a mortgage crisis, an auto industry crisis, and an economy in recession all under control, Obama also chose to move forward with major initiatives to develop new forms of energy and regulate existing ones as well as reforming healthcare and education.

All of these proposals represent daunting undertakings, failure to achieve progress in any one of which has been enough to hurl past Administrations badly off track. Combining them with climbing out from under our current financial mess requires a faith as Herculean as the inevitable effort Obama guaranteed will follow.

We may disagree with where Obama wants to go and/or how he proposes to get there but it now seems impossible to accuse him of trepidation. If anything, his determination to forge ahead with so much at such a difficult time reflects an unperturbed fearlessness on his part that some will doubtless now criticize as recklessness and overreaching.

Obama concluded his speech with as pragmatic a definition of bipartisanship as any imaginable.

“I know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed . . . That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months and where we return after those debates are done. That is the foundation on which the American people expect us to build common ground.”

Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana delivered the Republican response. Granted, the task he was given is a traditionally difficult and thankless one but for a rising star within the GOP, I saw little charisma or dynamism in his presentation. This aside, Jindal did a credible job delivering the main Republican message, promising to work with Obama except in those (frequent) cases when the Party chooses not to do so.

Jindal seemed sincere enough when he swore, “Tonight, on behalf of our leaders in Congress and my fellow Republican governors, I say – Our party is determined to regain your trust.”

Yet in response to a primarily economic speech, Jindal attempted a demarcation between the two Parties along the following lines.

“To solve our current problems, Washington must lead. But the way to lead is not to raise taxes and put more money and power in hands of Washington politicians. The way to lead is by empowering you – the American people. Because we believe that Americans can do anything.”

Fair enough but this sounds remarkably like the economic prescription offered during the 2008 campaign by John McCain and rejected by voters.

I have to agree with Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who dubbed Jindal the “anti-Palin.” I suspect most Democrats would prefer to face his policy wonk assiduousness over her folksy but often divisive ideologizing in 2012.

As for the rest of Obama’s speech, perhaps the most intriguing line came during a portion on education, when the President challenged young people to seek at least one year of post-high school education.

“And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American.”

What (if any) may be the effects on inner city black youths, who often experience some of the lowest graduation rates in the nation, when the first African-American President says that dropping out of school is not only uncool but also unpatriotic? The same query occurs over his admonitions to their parents to turn off the TV and help them study. The spirit of Bill Cosby seems to be overshadowing the Obama Administration’s Education Department.

Never mind Cosby, Obama was almost Bush-like in his jingoism. He also used a common Bush Congressional speech device, introducing a “gallery of heroes” seated around the First Lady. Obama’s gallery had some twists, however. In addition to the airline pilot who coolly and safely landed his disabled jet on the Hudson River and a bevy of military personnel with overseas service, there was also a bank president who gave away his multi-million dollar bonus to his struggling employees and denizens of tornado-ravaged Kansas town using their rebuilding efforts as an opportunity to employ clean energy.

Finally, there was a South Carolina teenager who wrote a letter to Obama, begging for Congress and him to help repair her dilapidated high school. Although their building was hopeless, the girl and her peers were anything but this.

“We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself . . . so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters.”

This last line, quoted by the President, may well have been the rallying cry of Obama’s speech and his fledgling Presidency. He may not succeed in every endeavor. He may even fail spectacularly at all of them but he will not quit. Quitting is for the fearful and Obama proved last night that he is not among their number.

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