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Talking Points Memo (TPM)

Obama's Masterful Speech

Theda Skocpol

The sight of this new President before all of assmbled official Washington is, in its way, as extraordinary as the other standout moments of this past half year: Denver in Mile High; election night in Grant Park; the DC Inaugural. All of those showed Obama directly amidst throngs of the American people, yet even here, amidst the new official Washington, he speaks to -- and for -- the citizenry. Repeatedly in this speech, Obama presented himself as fighting for a people of goodness and resolve -- for a better, shared future for all Americans. This is a very effective way for him to marginalize political enemies and call elites as well as regular citizens to greater personal and social responsibility.

Several impressions:

--Obama spoke more quickly and firmly than usual. Confidence in the face of massive challenge was his message, and I think it worked, allowing him to reframe his themes of resolve in the face of crisis, and determination to lay foundations for a stronger national future. The language of patriotic responsibility, love of nation, and service to nation allows him to speak for and with all of us. The challenge to Congress to take responsibility was also clear. To get beyond short-term and petty considerations. He called out irresponsible elites, too, to give voice to populist anger. He "gets it."

--A lot of policy ground was covered, but Obama's speech did not seem wonky. The best policy news, from my perspective, was the announcement that he is moving forward with health care reform this year. His framing for this new round of a too-oft-repeated and too oft-failed struggle is brilliant: "Cost" is the fault he invokes, allowing him to point at once to the burden on the economy and the burden on people. This is quite different from the traditional Democratic rhetoric of expanding coverage to the uninusured, yet it includes that goal and marries it to the larger challenge of economic renewal and innovation.

-- In such marked contrast to the timid triangulation of Clinton, Obama offers a strong, positive statement of the role of U.S. government in national development, past and for the future. Government does not "substitute" for business or individual action, but it is an essential "catalyst." Regulation has to be there to make markets "healthy." Obama invokes examples across the sweep of our history to illustrate and motivate the new round of federal government initiatives he now promises to lead -- and he names the major challenges that require major federal investments: in health care, energy, and education.

-- Obama managed to invoke the need for greater fiscal responsibiliy in a manner helps to motivate major social reforms (health care as a way to contain costs as well as support American wellbeing) and in a manner that makes it harder for Republicans to fight higher taxes on the wealthy. This is politically brilliant. So what if reducing the deficit by half by 2012 is a pipedream -- all Presidents make that same promise (half the deficit reduced ty the end of their first term!), but HOW they frame this task is what matters. Obama is doing it in a way that supports reforms and social investments and higher taxes on the well-to-do.

-- Overall, I am in awe of how effectively Obama combined human empathy with a projection of authority, and patriotic Americanism with a realistic assessment of where we really stand in a competitive world. How often have we heard any major U.S. politician repeatedly suggest in a speech that America is, or is in risk of, falling behind other named countries in key realms (renewable energy production, education, retooling major industries)? Obama did that several times tonight -- to help explain why he wants us to spur ourselves to greater investments and efforts. But he did it without making us seem pitiable or weak, in the context of an appeal to pull together and shape a better future. Remarkable.

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--Theda Skocpol

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