Former-president Bill Clinton noted in the build-up to President Barack Obama’s speech before a joint session of Congress last evening that he was looking for the new president’s message of hope.
One only needed to see the enthusiasm in the chamber as the president entered to feel that hope. From the entrance of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, rallying back from her bout with cancer, to Obama stepping over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s introduction in his eagerness to get started, Congress was filled with the sense that change was underway, that the work had begun, that once more, after eight years in the wilderness, reasonable, smart people could begin to figure out how to solve the plethora of immense problems that have descended upon us. And they had brought American citizens back into the dialogue.
Even the stock market seemed hopeful yesterday, rallying over 230 points on the day.
Obama gave an amazing performance—direct, clear, focused, and largely free of imagery except in his opening and closing. This was more than his “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” speech. It was a vision of the future based on a re-envisioning of how we live now—that we can’t keep doing the same things over and over again and expect different results.
What a contrast it was to the short-sighted national leadership with which we’ve lived for so long. And as if to emphasize that point, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s patronizing and backward-looking response dragged out most of the bogeymen of Republican campaigns from the last several elections. Patronizing in so many ways: opening with a reminder that this was the first such speech by a president of African-American heritage; reciting the tired litany of strawman arguments about Democrats raising taxes and funding social programs. Surely the best evidence of racial progress had been, up until that moment, that nearly everyone was focused on the leadership and message of Barack Obama—and not on his heritage.
You had to wonder if Jindal had mistakenly been given one of Lyndon Johnson’s old speeches and asked to respond. Even his rhetoric was empty, full of stage-directed chuckles and recited in a tone that wouldn’t get a high school kid a berth on the debate team. Without doubt, however, Jindal and those who subscribe to his backward-looking message seemed largely irrelevant.
The vision and confidence Obama demonstrated last evening drew strength from the recognition by most Americans that he was saying what needed to be said—and that, indeed, responsibility for the current problems we face, from climate change to the recession, lies in some measure with everyone, and that the issue now is how to rebuild and renew ourselves.
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