Obama Offers a Comprehensive 'Yes, We Can!'

Barack Obama's not-a-State of the Union address sounded precisely like
a State of the Union address, as the president offered a sober
assessment of a recession that "is real and (is being felt)
everywhere," and a dramatic vision of the multi-tiered approach he
proposes to renew the American economy.

Obama's Tuesday night speech
to Congress and the American people sketched the battlelines for coming
weeks and months of wrangling over immediate and longer-term economic
policy in the United States -- going out of his way to make the debate
over what to do about health care central to the discussion. And the
Democratic president's Republican critics bit.

As such, the night was distinguished by two competing themes:

1. Obama's determination to portray the economic crisis as a
daunting challenge that can only be met with a comprehensive approach
that includes both emergency responses -- as represented by the
stimulus bill be signed last week -- and structural shifts involving
health care, energy and education reform.

2. The Republican Party leadership's determination -- despite
evidence of genuine division among Republican governors and even among
congressional Republicans -- to counter the president's every
suggestion by just saying "no."

Through much of his speech, Obama sounded a little like an
emergency-room surgeon turning away from the operating table to explain
what he had done and what he was about to do.

Yes, the patient is very sick, "But," the physician-in-chief
counseled, "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

Obama outlined the steps he was taking to treat the immediate
crisis, beginning with the $800-billion American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act, which he painted it as a something-for-everyone
measure that will save or create 3.5 million jobs, provide just about
everyone with a tax cut and somehow remain fiscally responsible along
the way. He reviewed his proposals to ease credit with a Financial
Stability Plan that his office says "will guarantee that money is safe,
that banks start lending and that if they do receive taxpayer funds,
they will not be allowed to use them for perks and bonuses." And he
described his housing agenda with a new emphasis on the notion that,
while the legislation will help work-hard, play-by-the-rules families
stay in their homes, it will also keep interest rates low and enables
millions of homeowners who aren't in deep trouble to negotiate lower
mortgage rates.

This was not new material, although Obama and his team have wisely
recognized that, in order to sell their housing scheme, they will need
to reposition it as a populist response to the economic downturn rather
than a taxpayer-funded assist to the hardest hit.

What was new was the president's emphasis on the need to make "transformative investments" to:

  • Remake the health care system in a manner that reduces costs and
    increases coverage. (On this issue, where so many presidents have tried
    and failed, Obama said, "reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it
    will not wait another year.")

* Make the United States energy independent by creating a sustainable and clean energy economy.

* Modernize the country's education system in order to foster economic growth and competitiveness.

The final word on what such reforms are likely to look like will rest
with Congress, and Obama only began to detail his agenda during the
course of a speech that lasted the better part of an hour.

But the president's Republican critics filled in the blanks by
denouncing the Obama's approach as too ambitious, too expensive and too
reliant on the power of government -- and its ability to incur massive
amounts of debt.

Obama was still preaching bipartisanship, but the Republicans were echoing some of the rhetoric.

But for all the conciliatory language, the Republican response to
the president's speech was always going to slap rather than shake the
open hand of political friendship.

This was telegraphed by the opposition party's choice of a respondent to the president.

While most Republican governors are grabbing for federal stimulus
payments, the party turned the microphone over to the most prominent
refuser of federal largesse, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

Jindal came across better than his Washington-based counterparts
would have. He is not so freakishly emotional as House Minority Leader
John Boehner nor is he so crudely uncaring as Senate Minority Leader
Mitch McConnell. Yet, the message from Jindal, who is positioning himself as a 2012 GOP presidential prospect, was every bit as negative as that of his partisan allies.

If Obama said "stimulate," Jindal said "wait."

If Obama said "invest," Jindal said "cut taxes."

If Obama said "Roosevelt," Jindal said "Reagan."

One of the great lies in American politics is the claim that responses
to presidential addresses are never of any consequence. In fact, they
invariably tell us what how serious a fight the president has on his

The selection of Jindal was telling, indeed.

On Tuesday night, Barack Obama offered a comprehensive "yes, we can" promise.

Bobby Jindal responded with a narrow "no, we can't" threat.

The battlelines could not be any more clearly drawn.

The choice could not be any more dramatic -- or vital to the nation's future.

While Jindal fretted Hoover-like about the new Democratic
president's "irresponsible" response to an old Republican crisis, Obama
took the nothing-to-fear-but-fear itself position, telling Americans
that, "The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this
nation. The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach. What is
required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the
challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more."

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