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Jan. 28 2010 - 8:02 am | 871 views | 2 recommendations | 16 comments

Obama forgets his real audience

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 27:  U.S. Vice President ...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Just as writers need to write for readers, presidents need to talk to the people.  Last night, for the most part, Barack Obama missed his chance to do so.

Oh, during his first State of the Union address, he looked and sounded presidential.  He was calm, poised, articulate, unflappable, smiling. He put jobs and the economy in the forefront of the coming year. He talked of the mess he had inherited, the successes he’d had, the work that remained to be done.

What he didn’t do is talk to viewers sitting on their living room couches. What he didn’t do is to linger long enough on their struggles, to show them he cared,  to reach out to them in a way that let them knew, in the language and theater of Bill Clinton, that he felt their pain.  Instead, he put on a game smile and chided Republicans when they didn’t applaud his lines extolling the tax cuts he’d given the vast majority of Americans.

Barack Obama played to the wrong audience last night, not the public watching in their homes, but the powerful massed in the hall. He joshed with the old boys (and boys and old they are). But I doubt the country was much taken with the pomp or the circumstances.

It’s old news that some who voted for the president are disillusioned. Plenty more are in economic pain. They want to know he understands it; that he is unswervingly committed to healing it. Laundry lists of proposals and achievements make bad Band-Aids on such occasions.

Who knows. Maybe the second half of the president’s speech was great (he did have those nice lines reminding viewers that he never said change would come easily). By then I’d literally fallen asleep in my chair, bored by the litany of programs Obama was marching through. He didn’t stir my soul; he didn’t chip away my growing cynicism.

And I wanted him to, badly. I consider the Republican opposition in this country absolutely dreadful.  The president is right. This is the party of no. It can be as vicious as Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in his burn-and-pillage march through the South to the sea, willing to destroy all in its path to assure victory.  That’s why appealing to the Republican Party for bipartisanship is a waste of time.

Congressional Democrats, for their part, have proven themselves to be the undisciplined, wobbly-kneed, nervous nellies they’re frequently cast to be. They control both houses by substantial margins but are paralyzed by the next election. They, like the Republicans, forgot decades ago that they’re in Washington to actually do something, to serve the people.

Barack Obama stands on the cusp of being sucked into this dysfunctional crowd. Only one ally can force the Congress to act: the electorate, the people.  And only one thing will motivate the people to mobilize to force such action: A belief that the president is putting their issues, their concerns, their problems first.

So Mr. President, talk to us. Hold weekly Town Meetings in factories and town halls around the country, broadcasting them on the radio as modern-day version of FDR’s fireside chats. Listen to how people feel. Then lead, with the steel that change demands.

If you truly want change, you cannot accomplish it as president of the U.S. Congress, by cajoling and finger-wagging at the old-boys’ club. You need to be, and lead like, the president of the United States.


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  1. collapse expand

    It’s interesting you should feel President Obama didn’t speak directly to the people. I only heard the second half (since I was still at work) but what I heard really made me feel like, “Yes, Mr. President, yes.” When he ended with, “We don’t quit. I don’t quit,” I felt like he finally was hearing me. All of us. So maybe the tone of the message should have turned to the Americans earlier, and maybe he spoke too much politics and not enough main street, but I’m still with him. I’m not quitting.

    • collapse expand

      Hi Jennie,
      I’m glad to hear the second half picked up the pace. It wasn’t that the first half was bad, it just seemed kind of flat. A standard litany of goals and accomplishments. Not the stuff of inspiration, particularly given the grinding environment out there now. And very much directed to those at the event. Obviously next time I need to drink more coffee! As noted in the blog, I fell asleep.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Didn’t watch the speech, but I read the text. I’m so weary of the posturing. Yes, he inherited a mess. Yes, change can’t happen overnight. But for Pete’s sake. How about some tough language about breaking up the big banks? (He’s “not interested in punishing the banks”. Why the hell not? They’re certainly interested in taking the rest of us to the cleaners.) How about some even tougher language on putting an end date on Afghanistan? How about some real job stimulus policy–not just pouring money into community banks for small business loans, but the healthcare reform that is necessary to allow small business to hire people and provide employee health insurance. (And btw, did you notice he understated the joblessness number? He said one in 10 Americans are looking for work; Elizabeth Warren claims it’s one in five. I tend to believe her.)

    I dunno. We’ve heard it all before. Time will tell if the SOTU is just more rhetoric.

    • collapse expand

      It’s closer to one in five. If you take the number of people who have stopped looking for work or are under-employed (can’t find full-time work) and add them to the 10 percent out of work, slightly more than one in six are out of work. And I agree that the speech was tempered (yes, I also read the rest). Barack Obama is still talking bipartisanship instead of acknowledging, I fear,that with this gang of Republicans that’s the same thing as paralysis.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Jerry Lanson, whether you heard the whole speech or not, you captured one of my strongest reactions to it. And that is, he’s not talking to me. Maybe it’s expedience, giving those guys their “clean coal” and “safe nuclear” and “off-shore drilling.” Maybe that’s what his advisors are telling him is the only way he’ll get anything done. But it shocked the hey outta me. And that was just one jolt. I’m still glad I voted for him though, if not for the reasons I had in mind, then for the reason that he is exposing the very worst of governmental processes for all to see and judge. And of course he will manage to accomplish a modicum, if not more, of the Dems agenda. I’m no longer looking at his presidency through rose-colored glasses, but I’ll make no final judgment until his term is coming to a close. Looking forward (though wincingly) to the sturm und drang of this election year …

    • collapse expand

      I’d say we’re very much in about the same place. Quite frankly, I don’t normally nod off during political speeches. I’m a political junkie. But at least at its outset, even halfway through, this speech lacked the sense of urgency that seemed called for, particularly after the Massachusetts election, the absolute collapse of health care legislation, the outcry from all corners of the country that Washington pay more attention to jobs and housing foreclosures.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    I didn’t watch or hear the speech; everyone knew in advance what he was going to say. But I shall say, if he becomes a one-term president, it won’t be because he is incompetent (or inexperienced), but rather because the bicameral Congress employs only good-ol’ boy politicians. Moreover, I hear too often that many whites won’t vote twice for an African-American. This sort of benighted scat enrages me–and I’m white! Between the bigots, the republicans, and several go-with-the-wind democrats, it is likely that Obama won’t accomplish much. In my opinion, should Obama fail, it is the American public that must stand responsible for the congresspersons that walk the hallowed and now tainted halls in Washington. May they all rest in peace, soon!

    • collapse expand

      I don’t disagree. I believe Obama is in a terribly difficult place. He came into the presidency in a situation almost akin to new mayor in New Orleans right after Katrina. The public handed him the city’s keys and told to fix things in a year. It’s not so easy. Expectations were extraordinarily high, in large part because of his intelligence, his poise, his skills as a speaker. I gave my views of both sides of Congress in the blog. Nasty on one side. Limp on the other. All that said, I believe Obama has a strong enough reservoir of good will in the public — if he would use it. If he would push for change, his PUBLIC ratings would climb again even if he lost more battles or most battles in Congress. As he said last night, change is never easy. It also never happens unless the leader pushing for it is willing to take risks.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    I didn’t catch the whole speech either.
    You pretty much nailed it.Jon Stewart of the Daily Show mentioned that the Democrats seem to be in the act of making a long drawn out humiliating “apology for winning the election” and I have to agree.Therefore it makes sense that the President is more interested in addressing those power players in the room than out in Tee Vee Land.

    • collapse expand

      I guess when you have a 59-vote minority, you have to defer to the 41-vote majority? That’s the dizzying part of this government.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I don’t think I’ll ever ever ever understand that. The only frame in which it makes sense to me is one in which the Repub side and half the Dems are in toto white-hooded obstructionists who can barely hide their distain and disrespect for our president. Or, maybe it’s just as semi-benign as Jon Stewart joked last night: the big brother who revs the car forward every time you reach for the door to get in, only in the end to drive away abandoning you on the road. I don’t know.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    I have to agree with you but it could have been far worse like the nonsensical political theater, the insult to our collective intelligence that the republicans put on in place of an opposing party’s response. It was like being in Dodyville and listening to Howdy Doody. Kowabunga! (sorry for the old reference)

  7. collapse expand

    Obama came into office with promises to ‘fundamentally transform’ the American Economy and Government, even though he has no real world experience in actually creating the wealth he is so eager to confiscate. There is fundamental and legitimate opposition to his anti-free enterprise agenda, and saying no to his ruinous policies is the constitutional right of concerned Americans who oppose his march to socialism. If there is a ‘Party of No’ it’s the arrogant party led by Pelosi and Reid, who meet in secret and lock the doors rather than allow opposing view to be expressed.

    By the way, would the Union have been preserved or slavery ended sooner had Sherman behaved nicer during his march to the sea?

    • collapse expand

      Graham, I genuinely appreciate your dropping by. But I have a feeling we’re going to agree to disagree. There’s a big difference from being “anti-free-enterprise” and being “pro” letting banks, credit card companies, big pharma and anyone else do whatever they’d like without regulation. In my world, the first is responsible government that serves the people. The second is not.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I teach journalism at Emerson College in Boston. I've coached writers at a dozen newspapers, blogged, written a couple of textbooks and a few columns. I'm also a former editor at the San Jose Mercury News before Knight-Ridder's demise. My passions are politics, travel, music, most things French, and the outdoors.

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