Owning the tone, and other highlights



Some tangentially connected observations about President Obama's address to Congress:

The politics of the audacity of hope. Obama was right to downplay the gloom and play up the optimism. That's how FDR did it in 1933 ("This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper"). That's how Ronald Reagan did it in 1981 ("Let us begin an era of national renewal...and let us renew our faith and our hope"). Americans - and perhaps the markets - typically react best when they are told that their best days are still ahead.

It's not just good psychology. It's also good politics. Much like FDR and Reagan, both of whom were broadly popular during the first months of their tenures, Obama has the wind at his back. Most Americans are prepared to listen to him, not to the vanquished Republicans. In the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll, for instance, 61 percent said they trust Obama to best handle the economy; 26 percent trust the GOP (among, independents, the GOP drew only 23 percent). Meanwhile, in the latest New York Times-CBS poll, 79 percent said that the Republicans should work with Obama, while only 17 percent said that the Republicans should stick to their own policies.

In other words, it's an opportune time for Obama to set the tone for optimism on his own terms, to suggest (as he did last night) that America's best days are ahead only if cooperative lawmakers agree to enact his agenda - and to imply that there may be political risks for an opposition party that is perceived as being "against" optimism.

So it's all about who owns the tone. Will this work for Obama in the long run? We can't know that yet. But it appeared last night that the two Republican leaders on Capitol Hill were up to speed on public opinion, judging by how they comported themselves like declawed pussycats. Senate leader Mitch McConnell: "Working through the current troubles will require a shared commitment as we address America’s challenges ahead." And House leader John Boehner: "Republicans want to be partners with the President in finding responsible solutions to the challenges facing our nation."

As for the long run, it's a historical fact that both FDR and Reagan, those two great communicators of optimism, won their re-election races with landslide majorities in 1936 and 1984.

The expenditure of political capital. Clearly, however, Obama seems willing to spend down some of his popularity by making perhaps his hardest sell. He spent considerable time last night trying to persuade skeptical taxpayers that the banks - despite their disgraceful behavior of recent months - will need fresh huge infusions of federal bucks in order to survive for the good of all.

This long passage struck me as the heart of the speech:

"This (bailout) plan will require significant resources from the federal government - and yes, probably more than we've already set aside. But while the cost of action will be great, I can assure you that the cost of inaction will be far greater, for it could result in an economy that sputters along for not months or years, but perhaps a decade. That would be worse for our deficit, worse for business, worse for you, and worse for the next generation. And I refuse to let that happen.

"I understand that when the last administration asked this Congress to provide assistance for struggling banks, Democrats and Republicans alike were infuriated by the mismanagement and results that followed. So were the American taxpayers. So was I. So I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now, especially when everyone is suffering in part from their bad decisions. I promise you - I get it.

"But I also know that in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment. My job - our job - is to solve the problem. Our job is to govern with a sense of responsibility. I will not spend a single penny for the purpose of rewarding a single Wall Street executive, but I will do whatever it takes to help the small business that can't pay its workers or the family that has saved and still can't get a mortgage.

"That's what this is about. It's not about helping banks - it's about helping people."

He did pluck a few populist chords ("This time, CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over"), but this bank issue bears watching, if only because Obama seems so willing to risk his popularity by taking it on. He didn't exactly outline his bank rescue plan with any specificity; nor last night did he take on the dicey issue of nationalization. But, at minimum, he's apparently willing to bet that most Americans can be persuaded to accept that more federal intervention is crucial, not as a tenet of liberal ideology, but as a pragmatic necessity.

War on the books. One single paragraph, near the close of the speech, stood out. Note the passage that I have italicized:

"I am committed to restoring a sense of honesty and accountability to our budget. That is why this budget looks ahead ten years and accounts for spending that was left out under the old rules - and for the first time, that includes the full cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price."

Imagine, some actual non-fiction bookkeeping. It has long been an open secret in DC that President Bush always fought his wars off the books; in particular, by keeping his Iraq price tag out of the official budget, he succeeded in making his budget deficits seem far smaller than they actually were.

But Obama's move is not just a shout-out to the noble principle of transparency. It's also clever politicking.

By loading all the war costs into the official budget (along with some of the other stuff that Bush kept out, such as Medicare reimbursements to doctors), he does make the budget deficit look far worse than it did before...by several trillion dollars. But by doing this during his first year in office - while making clear, as he did last night, that this true deficit was basically "inherited" - then he gets to reap the political rewards if and when that true deficit gets sharply reduced over the span of the first term.

More specifically, by putting the Iraq war costs on the books right now, he sets up a PR triumph down the road. When those war costs decline during the next few years (as troops begin to come home, in accordance with the expected 19-month timetable), he'll be well positioned to point out how nicely the Iraq withdrawal has improved the budget ledger and reduced the deficit.

Bowling, shmowling. Read this speech passage, and then I have a question for you.

First, the passage: "If you haven't been personally affected by this recession, you probably know someone who has - a friend; a neighbor; a member of your family...you live it every day. It's the worry you wake up with and the source of sleepless nights. It's the job you thought you'd retire from but now have lost; the business you built your dreams upon that's now hanging by a thread; the college acceptance letter your child had to put back in the envelope."

I'll happily stipulate that cosmetics - such as connecting with one's audience at home - should not be mistaken for substance; for instance, Obama last night offered no specifics on how he would make health care more affordable and accessible.

But here's my question: Remember how everybody was talking during the presidential campaign about how Obama was a cerebral stiff that didn't know how to relate to the lives of average Americans?

Last April, Chris Matthews was asking, "Can Obama woo more regular voters - you know, the ones who actually do know how to bowl?" Last August, as Obama was preparing for his convention, pundits and many Democrats were still obsessing about his gutter balls, and about how (in the words of one Democratic National Committee member) voters "haven't been convinced that he relates to people like them." That month, Democratic pollster Peter Hart put some voters into a focus group and concluded that "this person (Obama) is closer to Adlai Stevenson than he is to Bill Clinton. There is not the sense of that visceral connection."

So, in the wake of his speech last night, I see only two explanations:

1. Spurred by the seriousness of the recession, cerebral Obama has risen to the occasion (as any alert president must do) and forged the necessary visceral connection with average Americans.

2. He was actually this way all along; and it was the '08 pundits, in their cluelessness, who were really bowling the gutter balls.