Barack Obama's speech before a joint session of Congress Tuesday night earned plaudits from pundits and politicians alike. Described as a coherent take on our nation's economic ills, the president's address was also cheered for offering optimistic, bold, and authoritative solutions to these very problems. Polls showed an overwhelmingly favorable response from the public as well.
On the Hill, high-ranking Democrats agreed with all these assessments, expressing a mix of relief, glee, and exaltation over the oratory and the mere fact that it was a Democrat at the lectern. But many were left pining for something more: namely, details.
"I have to admit -- it was one of the best 'state of the union-type' speeches I can recall," emailed one high-ranking Senate aide. "Obama displayed a Kennedy-like charm and sense of humor ... [His] closing -- with bankers and the student's examples of generosity and not quitting -- was nicely done, and believable. However, I thought overall the key elements of the speech -- energy, education and health care -- lacked convincing and detailed goals. What's the goal regarding energy? I'm still not sure how he proposes to get us off oil and by when."
"On health care -- it sounds like he's forming a task force next week? Look, we're the only civilized country in the world that doesn't recognize health care as a human right and have a system that removes the stress and financial burden from the ill... Overall, a 10 for style. A 9 for clear and memorable construction: energy, health care, education. A 5 or 6 for substance."
In conversations with other high-ranking Democrats (in which anonymity was granted in exchange for candor) similar reflections were offered. One senior aide for a high-ranking House member said the address "exposed" the president's "greatest strength and most crucial weakness."
"Although it is obvious that his speechwriters and advisors convinced him that he would be able to sell the American people on the concept of the economic stimulus as a 'downpayment,' I don't suspect that $800 billion translates quite that way to the average citizen," the aide said. "At the moments where President Obama touted the passage of the stimulus package as making a drastic step towards the solutions to the fundamentally American problems, the American people may expect the biggest single expenditure in American history to actually solve the fundamentally American problems."
In short: the big picture looks good; the lofty rhetoric was important. But either politics or the public will ultimately demand something more tangible. To the Obama administration's credit, the upcoming budget -- to be introduced on Thursday -- should help put meat on the oratorical bones. And other Democrats were more than pleased with the economic outline the president offered.
And yet, there were additional quibbles from some Hill aides, though all prefaced their criticism with adulation. One Senate Democratic aide lamented the lack of politics in the speech, calling it a "missed opportunity."
"The reality is that we didn't get to this place by accident," the aide said. "Many of the crises we're facing are the direct result of a bankrupt (literally and figuratively) radical conservative ideology. The collapse of Wall Street regulation, the war in Iraq and decline of our schools and infrastructure -- these things didn't happen because of a change in seasons. Republicans have spent 30 years telling us government couldn't do anything right and they were determined to prove it."
Others, however, felt positive and liked the focus on issues. A top-ranking aide called the performance "vintage Clinton" for its focus on personal responsibility, middle class tax cuts and security at home. "From a congressional perspective," the aide said, "it was a welcome return to a Democrat having the megaphone. It was a solid justification of why we are doing what we are doing. It was also nice not to have Bush standing there shamelessly demagoguing the threat of terrorism for political ends. The debate seems more honest and legitimate, based on a shared set of facts."