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Laundry List Of Speech Reactions

[ Posted Thursday, January 28th, 2010 – 16:36 UTC ]

The question on every political junkie's lips today is: "What did you think of Obama's first State Of The Union speech?" I don't have a single answer to that question, personally. I have some random reactions to different parts of the speech, so you'll have to forgive me for offering up such a mixed bag -- but then in my defense, I have to say the speech itself was a rather mixed bag.

Every president tries to pre-spin their speeches as "not a laundry list," and then winds up reading a laundry list anyway. I'm not sure what the point of this game is, but both sides do it equally. I'm not even sure why a laundry list is supposed to be a bad thing, unless it has to do with connotations of being boring. When you get right down to it, it's actually not even a "laundry list," for a couple reasons. One, nobody uses laundry lists these days. I've gone my entire life without ever laying eyes on a piece of paper that could be called a "laundry" list. When doing the laundry, who really needs a list? And secondly, a presidential State Of The Union is simply not akin to a laundry list, since the president is not exactly "airing his dirty laundry in public" or giving Congress instructions on how much starch to use when cleaning his legislative laundry.

The real term we should all be using is a "grocery shopping list," when you think about it. The president is going to the Congressional store with a list of what he would like on America's table. He reads the list, and then Congress attempts to put some of it in his shopping cart. This metaphor has a lot more going for it, is much more versatile, and everybody's used a shopping list at some point or another.

But for whatever inane reason, when talking about presidents talking to Congress, the term "laundry list" is the one bandied about. And President Obama certainly had quite a few disparate items on his list. There was something there for everyone, it seemed. Don't get me wrong, I don't necessarily think that's such a bad thing, it is in fact the nature of politics and politicians in general.

Overall, the speech was up to the Obama standard. It was a good speech, as a speech. Obama knows he and his party are in a tough spot, and the speech reflected that. But what I noticed about the speech weren't the actual items on the shopping list (most of which had already been pre-leaked), but rather a few stylistic items, and a few tactical political items.

So, in a rather mixed fashion, allow me to explain what my reactions to the speech were. The full transcript of the speech is worth reading, just to see what you may have missed, but rather than take the speech paragraph by paragraph, here instead is what I thought while watching Obama speak last night.


The spirit of Ronnie

If I had to sum up Obama's speech in one word, it would have to be "Reaganesque." I'll explain that in more depth as we go along, just wanted to get the Big Picture overview out of the way with first, here.


Toot your own horn

This is something Democrats just aren't usually all that good at doing. Democrats pass laws, and then never speak of them again... which kind of wastes the political capital they could gain by trumpeting their victories every chance they get. Republicans are much better at this sort of thing, I have to admit. But last night, Obama -- very early on -- ran through a list of what actually was accomplished last year, while the media was off chasing shiny balloons. There were other examples of this, but the most resonant was the "we cut taxes" part. All Democrats could learn a thing or two from Obama's reminders to the public that some good stuff has happened while Democrats have been in control, and Obama should keep doing this as often as possible.


Strange camera angles abound

They must have gotten a few more cameras into the room than usual, since we got several "artsy" shots that were downright bizarre. The ones I remember, off the top of my head: Ceilingcam, Aislecam, and the profile shot that can only be called Bidencam.

I don't have any deep thoughts about this, just wanted to mention it in passing.


Obama sounded annoyed

This was refreshing to see, actually. Obama needed to recapture some of the emotion from the campaign trail, that has been sorely missing in his first year in office. I know, he's supposed to be Spock-like and cool and collected and all of that, but there is such a thing as taking this too far. The American people want to feel a personal connection to their presidents, and the only way for this to happen is to occasionally show a little emotion.

Obama showed this last night. Granted, being annoyed is not usually an endearing emotion, but at the juncture we find ourselves at, it was perfectly appropriate. He wasn't full-on angry, which likely would have turned people off, but he wasn't cool and collected, either. Which, I think, did him some good last night with the public. I could be wrong about that, though, that's just a personal gut feeling.


Not afraid to bash a few people

Republicans are whining (of course) that Obama "bashed Bush too much" in his speech. But Obama is right to remind people that he inherited not just a mess, but several messes on his first day in office. And he is right to remind the American public (who has the attention span of a hyperactive kitten) exactly where we were one year ago, because for all the grief his economic team has taken of late, they did perform emergency surgery on the financial system that (if it had not been done) would have led us to a far worse place than we are in today.

And, if you need a snappy comeback to Republican gripes about Bush-bashing, sweetly tell them that this technique was perfected by none other than Ronald Reagan himself, who never passed up an opportunity to blame everything on Jimmy Carter, even years after he took office.


Bashing some other people

The biggest recipient of Obama's wrath, however, was not Bush or even Republicans, but rather the Senate. Obama gave several "shout outs" to the House, while ripping into the Senate for not following through on the good stuff the House has managed to pass. One wonders what Harry Reid really, truly thought of Obama's speech. One wonders also what Obama thinks of Harry Reid these days.

One doesn't have to wonder what Obama thinks of the media, however. It was amusing as all get out to see the instant reactions from the pundits to Obama singling them out for scorn. You know what you never see on the news? Polls about how Americans view the news media. There is a reason for this -- they are less trusted than politicians, and they know it.

Obama got a few other random shots in -- right, left, and center -- and, once again, it was actually relieving to see this. The man is human, and anyone would be a little annoyed after the year he's just been through.


Biden's a happy guy

Saturday Night Live will likely point this out in a few days, but Joe Biden cracks a grin at the drop of a hat. Obama may not have looked very happy last night, but Joe Biden more than made up for it.


America is not "number one" in everything

This is tantamount to sacrilege in American politics -- but the fact is, we simply do not lead the world in all things these days. We just don't. Not that the average American has noticed, mind you. Americans grow up with the message "We're Number One!" drilled into them constantly, which is why it is a bedrock belief among most of the public. But most of the public never travels outside America's borders in their lifetimes. I've heard only fifteen percent of Americans will ever own a passport, for instance.

So they simply don't have anything to compare America to. Which leads to this disconnect. Obama dared to point this out last night, on more than one occasion. China and Europe are far beyond us in high-speed trains. And we are in serious danger of falling so far behind the rest of the world on clean energy that we'll never be able to catch up.

But I have to say, it is shockingly refreshing to see an American politician actually point this out, because the vast majority of his audience either simply will not believe him, or, at the very least, wonder what he's talking about. We're number one in everything, right? Well, no.

Obama turned this around, in true Reaganesque fashion, to "I do not accept second place for the United States of America." In other words, we can be number one, we've just got to work at it a little bit. This was nothing short of brilliant -- the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine of "we're not number one" go down, in other words. And he also brilliantly sidestepped the entire global warming debate, by saying, in essence: if we don't act, we will not be number one anymore.


Ad libs

There were a few amusing ad libs from Obama last night, the most prominent of which was "That's how budgets work" to groans from Republicans. Again, no sweeping conclusions here, just felt like pointing it out.


Democrats running for the hills

Obama truly looked like a leader when he scolded his own party, by reminding them they still have the biggest majority Congress has seen in decades. In other words, Democrats have the power to get things done, if they approach the problem correctly. Instead of, as Obama put it, "running for the hills," pretty much every time Republicans sneeze.


Veto threats

The most-welcome tactic (for me, at least) from Obama last night was to issue not just one, but two veto threats. Woo hoo! About time.

At this point, I don't even care what he's threatening to veto, it's the mere fact that he is doing so -- which, up until this point, he simply has not done yet. The veto threat, if used judiciously, is the biggest bargaining chip the president has in wrangling with Congress. Drawing a line in the sand, and saying "do not compromise beyond this point, or I will send the bill back to you" is what a lot of people have been looking for (and not seeing) from Obama on several legislative debates.

This sends a crystal-clear message to members of his own party who are about to compromise a bill beyond usefulness: Don't go there. As I said, I don't even care what he's threatening to veto, at this point, I'm just glad to see him take this tactic out of the toolbox.


Optimism and realism

This is my final point on Obama's speech, and brings us back to Reagan, where we started. Obama used an excellent mix of realistically laying out where the country is right now, and optimism that the future will indeed be better, especially if Congress does what he wants them to do. This, more than anything else, was the hallmark of Ronald Reagan.

This is also what has been missing from Obama's first year, or at least the last half of his first year. Americans really do want to know that our leader is optimistic about the future. It is a comforting thought, most especially when times are tough. We don't want a Pollyanna -- we want someone who accurately realizes that problems exist -- but we also want someone who appears like he has a plan to solve those problems, with his eyes on a bright future beyond them.

That is exactly what Obama gave us last night, and why without a hint of scorn (I didn't agree with Reagan on pretty much everything, but that doesn't mean I can't recognize the brilliant political skills he had, at times) I can say that Obama's speech was downright Reaganesque. In a good way.


The GOP response

Not what was said, but where -- and in front of whom -- was a masterful visual coup, I have to admit. In this case, I have to agree with all the intelligent pundits who predicted "this is the way it will happen forevermore."

Rather than one guy alone in a room, in front of a flag, and talking into a single television camera (think: Bobby Jindal), last night's response to Obama's speech was delivered from the Virginia legislature, in front of an adoring crowd of Republicans.

This, in the future, will the gold standard of opposition response speeches.

Of course, in the future, it is likely that the president's political party will not let the other side get away with "packing the house" in such a fashion. They will demand (and rightly so) that either (A.) they are included in the audience, if such a speech is given in an official setting, or (B.) that the state legislature's chambers cannot be used for such a nakedly partisan pep rally.

Meaning that we may never again see what we saw last night, because future responses will either have a more balanced audience, or a less official setting.

But, I have to hand it to the Republicans, last night will go down in television history as the absolute gold standard of such response speeches, that likely will never be matched. It was a brilliant "staging" coup, and the Republicans deserve a mention for pulling it off so well.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


10 Comments on “Laundry List Of Speech Reactions”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    The SOTU gave me some new hope that the Dems might actually start really trying to get something done. I was happy that Pres. Obama said he would use his veto but I was happier when he said would issue an executive order - I just wish that he would issue such an order to end "don't ask don't tell" in the military.

    I am still not going to hold my breath waiting for any of the items on the list to be checked off.


  2. [2] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Chris, I had a completely different reaction to McDonnell's response. Holding the first SOTU response to America's first black president in the room where Jefferson Davis was sworn into office makes for incredibly bad optics. The speech itself was tone-deaf -- Obama had stolen most of the rhetorical thunder -- and the enthusiasm was obviously coached.

    One thing I noted during the SOTU: the Republicans sat on their hands until Obama chided them for not applauding tax cuts. Apparently realizing their error, the right side of the chamber leaped to its feet at the very next applause line...

    ...for big business.

    This after sitting on their hands while the president talked about reigning in banks, deficits, etc...

    Incredibly bad optics. I guarantee it will show up ads this fall.

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Stan -

    The ball's now in Congress' court, let's see what they do with it.

    Osborne -

    Well, most Americans aren't that up on their history, I think. You're right about the GOP speech -- it was pretty low-impact, but then following Obama is probably not that easy a thing to do for anyone.

    As for showing up in ads, well, I wish that Democratic campaign strategists were that on-the-ball, but I haven't seen all that much evidence of it. This really annoys me -- the number of times Dems just forget, or refuse to use something in campaigns that would be an easy target.

    I hope you're right, though.


  4. [4] 
    LewDan wrote:


    A laundry list is a shopping list, the same as a grocery list. Its just that few people use laundries anymore, they use self-service laundries, if any, where they only rent equipment to do the job themselves instead of buying laundry services. Its not that the metaphor is less appropriate, its that the word laundry is now associated with self-service laundries and not hand laundries.

    I make the observation because there is really nothing else you've said I can quibble with.

  5. [5] 
    LewDan wrote:

    In case anyone doesn't know, (and as I failed to say so above,) a laundry list is a list of items to be laundered.

  6. [6] 
    Moderate wrote:


    Well as I think Obama's plan on the banks is wrong I'm not sure I agree that it was bad for the Republicans not to applaud it. But we'll see how it plays out in November, as well as how Justice Alito's mouthed words play out.

    Of course there are those of us who believe that, as the Supreme Court attends as a non-partisan body, criticism of them is, at best, very poor protocol, because it's quite different from critique of the opposition.

    Whether one agrees with the decision or not, I think that it is unfair to attack a group that can't rebut you (using applause or otherwise, hence criticism of Alito mouthing something, even if it wasn't formally a rebuttal or rebuke).

    I also thought the GOP response was actually very impressive, considering just how good Obama's SOTU was (and I give credit where it's due, that was a very impressive speech). As a man of colour myself, I do get annoyed that race gets brought into any response to Obama. Whilst it's understandably a factor, I think the selection of the forum here had a lot less to do with race and a lot more to do with the fact it was the Governor of Virginia speaking.

    To be fair, the right are just as bad at it (with their condemnation of Reid for words that were more misguided than racist), although I think some of those who were angered by the treatment of Reid didn't so much believe it to be a racism issue, but rather a double standards issue (that if a Republican dared to use the word Reid did, they'd be vilified from pillar to post).


    Excellent post. Like you I felt Obama's SOTU was very reminiscent of Ronnie, and if that's a sign, it's not exactly a bad one. As you noted in your poll site, Obama's approval ratings have so far tracked Reagan's rather closely, and he ended with excellent approval ratings. Reagan was also a President who was known for making Congress march to his tune, rather than ceding authority, even to those of his own party, and Obama's deference to Pelosi and Reid is an issue I've heard many left-winger lament. Maybe this signals a change?

    I doubt you'd be unhappy to see Obama "lead" more.

  7. [7] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Is anyone else seeing trackback and pingbacks appearing in this list? Looks like a bug that needs fixing, we apologize for the problem.

    Moderate -

    Ronald Reagan himself castigated the Supreme Court during a SOTU message. The issue was school prayer.


  8. [8] 
    Moderate wrote:

    You mean in 1988? Granted, I was about seven when that happened so I didn't see it, but I've certainly read about it. From what I understand he simply pointed out a logical disconnect between the fact the Supreme Court itself begins each day with a prayer but schools weren't allowed to. He then proposed amending the constitution. Obama's words sounded more like saying the decision was bad law (which it might be). One could argue he's more capable of analysing Supreme Court law than Reagan was (as a Law Professor) but I still see more deference in the way Reagan spoke.

    Incidentally I don't agree with school prayer myself, so this isn't partisan, and if I'm fair, what Reagan did was certainly skirting the edge of what is and isn't acceptable, but I do think Obama stepped a little further.

    Of course, this is all a matter of framing, but since you are a fan of framing as a political tool, I hope you can see my point (even if you don't agree with it, per se). It's also interesting that since you yourself referenced the Reagan influence on Obama's SOTU that this should provide yet another parallel.

    Besides, my point was less a criticism of Obama and more a defence of Alito mouthing those words (for which he's been condemned quite a bit). I've also read the decision, and do think Obama did somewhat misrepresent what it's holding was (even suggests that he did, but that because he began the sentence with "I believe", it was an opinion, not fact), which was probably what Alito was referring to with his "Not true" statement.

    I'm actually not sure either Alito nor Obama should be castigated for that incident at all, just thought I'd add it to Osborne's "bad optic" list (which could hurt either party, depending on how it plays out, come November).

  9. [9] 
    Moderate wrote:

    Incidentally, wasn't Reagan's criticism of old decisions, rather than the court that was sitting in front of him? Not sure, because I didn't see it myself, but from my old US Con Law classes wasn't Engel v Vitale decided in the 60s?

    That's what seemed to be the break from protocol for me, in that the court Obama was criticising was sat right in front of him. But I could be wrong on which case law in particular it was that Reagan was opposed to. Like I said, back in 1988 I was seven, so I didn't watch the SOTU myself, just read it.

  10. [10] 
    Moderate wrote:

    Btw Chris, thought you might find this article on the subject interesting:

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