Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Like We’re Grownups

President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress — basically a State of the Union speech that wasn’t billed as such — did everything his Inauguration speech did not: lay out a more specific agenda for economic recovery, and go beyond the ceremonial in terms of making it clear how he plans to govern now that he’s had a chance to actually sit in the Oval Office and see what is really going on.

After the last eight years of being talked to by a president who seemed to think we were either idiots or children incapable of dealing with the challenges, it was refreshing to be told that we’re in deep trouble and it’s going to take a lot of work to get out of it, yet with the confidence that we are up to the task. If the skeptics and the Republicans were expecting the president to say that the government is the only solution to our problems and that he could make it all go away with tons of money and bureaucracy, they must have been disappointed: there goes their prime opposition talking points. The president made it clear that the government — federal, state, and local — has a major role as the starting point, but the rest of it is up to us, and he expects results that are above and beyond the reach of what a grant application and a check can do. And he made it clear that anyone who sits back and expects someone else to do the work for them is in for a rude shock; there’s too much to do.

For those who have been knocking the president for not being hopeful enough in his campaigning for the stimulus bill and the rest of his agenda, I think this speech put an end to that. For those who said he had a tough balancing act between happy-talk and gloom-and-doom in laying out what’s gone on and what has to be done, he made it across the wire with confidence and grace.

Some pundits compared Mr. Obama’s delivery to that of Ronald Reagan with its upbeat tone and celebrities in the gallery, but where Mr. Reagan handed out nostalgic nostrums and relied on his charm to get things done without bothering with the policy details, Mr. Obama was more specific than Mr. Reagan and didn’t hold back in telling us that the only way things are going to get better is if we all pitch in. Whereas Mr. Reagan relied on a belief in the passive and inherent goodness of America — something the Republicans talk about but don’t really trust — Mr. Obama made it clear that we have a lot of work to do and that he had every confidence that we can do it. That wasn’t Ronald Reagan; that was Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Those are big footsteps to follow, but this president gave every indication that he — and we — are up to the task.