03/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A More Perfecter Not-SOTU

Some people say the automobile dates back to Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot's self-propelled three-wheeler in 1769. Last night, Obama said we invented the thing right here in the United States. The truth: Karl Benz made the first car back in 1885. Today's youth, what to do? Fox News caught the flub. Big deal, you say? Me too.

We heard Obama say the bailouts were "not about banks," but rather "about helping people... " They look like they might be about helping banks. They also look like they may be about helping people. Try to do both: fail.

Half a day later, perhaps out looking for "fancy drapes," Wall Street multitasks--empties portfolios. And things are that much worse. There is a connection between the markets shedding value and Obama speeches, and in general it's a healthy one. With every step Obama takes towards a sustainable version of the free market system, the Street sees its happy-world-of-no-pants contract.

But let's backtrack to the birthplace of the automobile, because it is important. Obama needs to speak with authority. In this way, the seemingly minor error becomes emblematic of a larger problem. Credibility and boneheaded errors don't go hand in glove.

When you have a little something on your cheek after lunch, wouldn't you like to think that a pal would tell you about it before you head into the big afternoon meeting? Of course you would. And yet here's the newly minted president surrounded by a doggedly loyal "team of rivals" and somehow a glaring error creeps into an otherwise excellent (dare we say perfect?) speech.

Was it necessary? No. Understandable? No. Does it matter? Yes.

The truth: we perfected the production of the automobile here, specifically the assembly line mode of production that made cars available to a burgeoning middle class in America. We perfected the car. That's what Obama was getting at, regardless the flub. That's the sort of behavior we need to focus on now. Perfecting things. Let's start with speeches, then move on to the economic situation. If we are to excel as a nation of experts and innovators, should we not tap our experts to lead the way?

The answer is not most obviously Tim "Turbotax" Geithner, whose relationship to banks is arguably complex enough to give the impression to some (one is enough) that he's never going to be sufficiently tough on imperiled financial institutions. Paul Krugman probably would fail the "U.S. of A." vanilla sniff test, but he is a Nobel Laureate, and he says we did not go far enough, which leads to a question regarding the feasibility of a real fix. How much dough would it take? Do we need to become Sweden? Even Alan Greenspan thinks we need to nationalize for a while.

Last night was inspiring on a number of levels. Obama did a fantastic job delivering a nearly flawless speech. The Republican response, starring Bobby Jindal as the Scarecrow, was laughable and painful by turns.

That's all fine and good, but until we can get through the important meetings without silly mistakes--whether those meetings have to do with a cabinet member (today saw the third Commerce Secretary designate announcement), or a stupid fact when everyone's looking for a soft spot to attack--we still have reason to worry.

On the bright side, we'd assuredly all be out selling pencils on the street if George W Bush were riding herd on this debacle. For that we can be grateful. And for Lent perhaps we can ask this administration to give up any more avoidable mistakes. As Yogi Berra might say, "You have to be perfect to be perfect."