In his programs and promises, President Barack Obama Tuesday night offered the nation by far the most expansive agenda for the national government in decades.
In his words and mood, however, Obama presented this breathtakingly ambitious vision in a way intended to convey caution, moderation, sobriety.
The 52-minute address outlined more commitments by the public sector, more intervention into the private economy, and more spending than anything Washington has undertaken at least since the Great Society and more likely the New Deal.
The substance reflected Obama’s bet that the country—alarmed by the economic crisis, repelled by the failures of the president who preceded him—is ready to move in a decisively more liberal direction.
The rhetoric, by contrast, reflected his apparent belief that most Americans remain instinctually conservative, leaving him and his agenda acutely vulnerable to backlash.
The result was a bold vision supported by defensive arguments. Repeatedly he made his case by stressing what he and his program—with its trillions of dollars to jump-start the economy, bail out distressed auto firms, banks, and homeowners, and launch major new initiatives on health care, clean energy, and education—were not.
Referring to the $790 billion he won to jump-start the economy, he said he backed the measure, “Not because I believe in bigger government — I don't. Not because I'm not mindful of the massive debt we've inherited — I am.”
Nodding to public anger about coming to the rescue of reckless bankers, he repeated twice that he was trying to help people not banks, and practically pleaded, “I promise you — I get it.”
He took the same tack with homeowners, singling out “speculators” and those who borrowed beyond their means and pledging—in an assertion that critics vigorously dispute—that they would not be helped by his plan.
And on taxes, which he wants to raise on the most affluent, he repeated with emphasis that “not one single dime” will come from families earning less than $250,000.
In many ways, Obama used his speech to practice the politics of “pre-buttal”—attempting to pre-empt the lines of argument that Republicans hope can revive their defeated and demoralized party.
It was as if he and his speechwriters had listened closely to both Bill Clinton and Rick Santelli. It was Santelli, the CNBC commentator, who rallied bail-out skeptics with an on-air rant that Obama was rewarding irresponsible behavior by careless banks and homeowners.
The former president, meanwhile, said recently that Obama needed more inspiration and hope mixed in with his bracing warnings about the anemic economy.
Obama closed his speech by telling lawmakers that if Washington rose to the occasion in meeting the crisis “then someday years from now our children can tell their children that this was the time when we performed, in the words that are carved into this very chamber, ‘something worthy to be remembered.’”
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