“We Are Not Quitters”

Can Obama turn his confidence into success?

President Barack Obama addresses Congress

Barack Obama delivered a mixed message in his first address to Congress, so it was fitting that his call for sacrifice and hard choices fell on Mardi Gras, a day reserved for irresponsible revelry. The president tried to give an honest assessment of the current dire economic condition while rallying the country to its strongest traditions of optimism and perseverance. He did it.

Before the speech, the charge against Obama was that he’d been too downbeat about the collapsing economy. Bill Clinton had advised him to bring a little more sunshine. The title of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Republican response, sent to reporters before Obama started, was “Americans Can Do Anything.” It was a counterpoint to what the GOP expected to be a litany of woe. “Don’t let anyone tell you that we cannot recover—or that America’s best days are behind her,” said Jindal.That Obama was sapping confidence in the economy was a potentially potent story line. With the Dow Jones industrial average hitting historic lows, the political tactic was to tie Obama’s supposed lack of optimism to a falling market.

The charge was a little dubious—markets move for their own reasons—and the Dow was actually up more than 200 points Tuesday. But the president and his aides were eager to push back against this idea. Their strategy was twofold. First, Obama made Wall Street executives a regular boogeyman in his speech, responsible for our economic decline as they fed their profligate ways, in order to make the point that any reaction from Wall Street is not to be trusted. Next, aides went to work blowing sunshine. The speech excerpts they released in time for the evening news approximated the aphorisms you see on inspirational posters next to pictures of adorable cats.

Obama came into the evening with a lot of support. According to the latest CBS/New York Times poll, people are patient about change, and yet they’re optimistic that Obama will take them to a better place. When Obama entered the House chamber, the optimism was on full display. He looked like a guy who was in command and having fun. He also looked as if he belonged in the chamber. He was not there to deliver a formal State of the Union address but he had to go through nutty rituals anyway—the afternoon lunch with television network anchors, the deep-tissue massage from lawmakers lining the House aisle, the endless applause.

Atmospherics only take a president so far, but if part of a president’s job is looking as if he sees better days ahead, it helps to play the part. The comparison with Ronald Reagan’s speech in February 1981 is striking. Reagan also faced a brutal economy, but the man known for his supernatural optimism was less sunny than Obama in his first address to Congress. Reagan described a country where, for the unemployed, “despair dominates their lives,” and the ship of state was “out of control.” He spent the bulk of the speech outlining his policies and very little energy on the innate character of the country. “There has been no breakdown of the human, technological, and natural resources upon which the economy is built,” he said.

Obama regularly asserted his belief in America’s ability to rally—and he did so by creating inspiration through telling the kinds of stories that worked so well for him during the campaign. The emotional highlight of the evening came when he read from a letter by Ty’Sheoma Bethea, a young student from Dillon, S.C. who had written to Congress: “We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself, and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters.”

As he sketched his plans for health care and energy independence, the president returned repeatedly to America’s history of greatness. And he made strong moral claims. When talking about high-school dropouts, he spoke directly to a patriotic duty: “Dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country—and this country needs and values the talents of every American.”

The speech was also a test of Obama’s power to persuade. In his first press conference, he played the professor, giving long answers that diagrammed perfectly but that lacked the emotional resonance of his campaign. In his quasi-State of the Union performance, he was far more like the Obama of the campaign trail. He showed how well he can use the bully pulpit that comes with his office to explain his plan, explain why he thinks it’s necessary and to show that he understands some measures, like the bank bail out, are unpopular. As he said at one point, “I get it.”

The big question now is what happens next. As if to complete yet another State of the Union tradition, Obama spent a great deal of time on the laundry list of programs he was proposing. He increased the number of troops, hinted at the need for more bailout money, promised universal education through college and universal health care. At one point, he even promised to cure cancer.

This causes at least two problems. It sounds too good to be true (and it is), and the groaning basket of policy dreams creates dissonance with all of Obama’s recent talk about fiscal stability. The polls show Americans list the deficit as their top concern. This won’t settle their fears.

There’s also the practical problem with Obama’s promises. While he’s expanding commitments, he’s making big promises for fiscal responsibility and rigor.

“Everyone in this chamber—Democrats and Republicans—will have to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars. And that includes me,” he said. That might just sound like rhetoric, but Obama keeps doubling down. He has committed to going line-by-line in his budget looking for waste and to holding Congress accountable as well. “I want to pass a budget next year that ensures that each dollar we spend reflects only our most important national priorities.” When he talks about saving “each dollar,” he’s not kidding. At his fiscal responsibility summit Monday, Obama boasted about the $1 million that could be saved by updating the Agriculture Department’s Web site.

That’s great. But it also sets a high bar for Congress. Will it be able to pass the “each dollar” test? It didn’t when it came to negotiating the stimulus package. It’s not likely to in the coming $410 billion spending package being debated this week, a package that represents the second biggest annual increase since 1978 for discretionary spending. Obama is making an enormous case about the central role of government, based, in part, on the idea that his approach will be honest, accountable, and gimmick free. If his promises turn out to be phony, then he may lose the political capital necessary to sustain support for the long-term projects he launched tonight.

The speech was not an official State of the Union address, yet Obama followed the usual traditions of such speeches, down to his choice of an adjective—it’s almost always strong—to describe the state of the union. (Even George Washington, in his first address, felt compelled to offer the sentiment: “I embrace with great satisfaction the opportunity, which now presents itself, of congratulating you on the present favorable prospects of our public affairs.”) Given the economic conditions in the country right now, it would have been hard for President Obama to find a way to say those words. Nevertheless, he did come close. “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.”

It’s a big boast. It takes a confident orator to make it. It will take an even more confident president to pull it off.