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 before."
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 hands.
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."