President Barack Obama's speech hit every note it needed to hit last night. Polling immediately after the speech as well as a survey of the pundits on the major networks and on cable bears this out. Despite the grim economic news in the weeks leading up to last night's speech, President Obama managed to exude both optimism and competence. He looked like a leader who understands the power of the presidential bully pulpit and how to use it. He was interrupted by applause 65 times. He received 37 standing ovations. There was plenty of bipartisan applause along with a sprinkling of partisan script-following and hand wringing. It was a joy to watch because it was a reminder of the essential vitality of our democratic institutions. This is what it feels like to have a president who speaks like an adult and who has the ability to speak to us as if we're adults, too.
Last night was our first look at a new president making his first speech before both houses of Congress. After eight years of fear, bullying and non-stop bloviating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it was a pleasant change of pace. A president who can deliver a fabulous speech while looking sharp, confident and intellectually engaged is probably going to take some getting used to, especially for his critics. Mr. Obama managed to deliver a populist message that must have annoyed corporate CEOs desperate for a sign that the president feels their pain and is willing to turn the American economy upside down just to bail them out. He told America that the days of corporate irresponsibility were over and that CEOs will be accountable for the financial help they receive from the American taxpayer. Fancy drapes and corporate jets were singled out as signs of a decadent corporate culture. Michael Douglas' "Wall Street" character Gordon Gekko was officially put on notice last night. Corporate greed is no longer "good."
Mr. Obama got plenty of bipartison applause for his stand on education and the need for more parental involvement in our children's education. He said that dropping out of high school was no longer an option. "It's not just quitting on yourself," he said. "It's quitting on your country." He vowed that by 2020, the U.S. would have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. He got a big pop from threatening terrorists operating out of the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, too.
When Mr. Obama conceded that growing the deficit on the backs of our children was irresponsible, too, the Republicans went wild. Their applause was an implicit rebuke of the recently passed stimulus package. "I knew we could get some consensus in here," the president said wryly before following up with a zinger --- "with the deficit we [the Obama administration] inherited." Then it was turn for the Democrats to go crazy.
When Mr. Obama said that the U.S. could finally say, without fear of contradiction that America doesn't torture, you could feel the pro-torture apologists for the Bush administration sliding under their tables.
The biggest applause was reserved for his kind words about supporting the troops with an increase in pay, shorter deployments and expanded medical benefits. Military men and women must be in shock about finally having an attentive commander-in-chief: "We honor your service," he said. "We are inspired by your sacrifice. You have our undying respect."
In contrast, it was painful watching Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal give the Republican response to the president's speech. For one thing, the boyish-looking governor looks more like Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Newman than George W. Bush does. Speaking in a sing-song cadence that tacked closely to orthodox Republican positions, Gov. Jindal did the best he could with the rotten hand he was dealt. What can a young leader in a party that specializes in failed ideas do under the circumstances?
Still, this beautiful dream that the Democrats and the country is currently experiencing could all go away if Mr. Obama's various plans to jumpstart the economy tank. Four years from now, we could very well be evaluating Mr. Jindal's much improved delivery before Congress extolling draconian taxcuts and zero federal spending on national infrastructure or job creation. It could come to that, pretty speeches or not.