President Obama’s State of the Union message on January 25, 2011 played to a somewhat subdued crowd, as Republicans and Democrats sat with each other (a departure from the purely partisan speeches of other years). The recent Tucson shooting of Gabrielle Gifford lent a somber tone to the evening. Those in attendance wore small ribbons to show support for the injured Congresswoman, recently the target of an assassination attempt.
CBS EXIT POLL SHOWS 92% APPROVAL RATING FOR OBAMA SPEECH
According to an exit poll done of 500 viewers and presented by Anthony Mason on CBS, the response from viewers was 92% favorable. Admittedly, there were more Democrats in the sample than Republicans (45% D to 23% R and 32% I), but the viewers overwhelmingly approved of Obama’s upbeat “can do” message. His approval ratings on how he is handling economic problems in the country surged from a pre-speech +54% approval rating to a post-speech +81% approval rating. Another positive sign: +62% of viewers said that, after viewing the speech, they felt that Democrats and Republicans could work together to address the nation’s problems.
Over on ABC, a panel of experts was “grading” Obama’s performance, with Cokie Roberts giving him an “A” for “style,” while Matthew Dowd gave Obama a “B.”
BEGINNING OF STATE of the UNION ADDRESS
For me, the speech was a great one. Some onscreen talking heads called the speech “Reagan-esque,” which meant that lines and thoughts like the ones I have excerpted, articulated at the beginning of the speech, went over extremely well: “We believe that we are still bound together as one people, that we share common hopes and a common dream. — That they (hopes and dreams) all deserve the chance to be fulfilled. That, too is what sets us apart as a nation.”
Many commentators remarked that the speech seemed to be an expansion on remarks made after the Tucson tragedy. (They also commented on the relatively negative tone of the Republican response, given by Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.) The on-air personalities were referring to lines like this, early in the speech: “There’s a reason the tragedy in Tucson set us back. It reminded us that no matter where we come from, we are part of the American family.”
Said the first African-American president ever elected: “I believe we can (work together) and I believe we must. That’s what the people who sent us here expect of us. With their votes, they’ve determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility. We will move forward together or not at all. For the challenges we face are bigger than parties and bigger than politics. It isn’t the election. The stake is whether new jobs and industry take root in this country or somewhere else, whether we sustain the leadership that makes America the light to the world. We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession we have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back, the economy is growing again.”
OPTIMISTIC BUT REALISTIC
Continuing in this optimistic, hopeful vein, Obama said: “No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies or grants more patents. We are home to the world’s best universities. What’s more, we are the first nation to be founded on an ideal: the idea that we can chart our own destiny.” Bob Schaeffer, veteran CBS commentator (whom I met while covering the Belmont Town Hall meeting), said of remarks like this one, “It was a very well-written speech — especially the beginning and the end.”
BOB SCHAEFFER & KATIE COURIC, POST-SPEECH
Schaeffer and Katie Couric commented after Obama’s speech (CBS), in particular, about his emphasis on looking to the future and on his optimism. An example: “The future is ours to win it, but we can’t just sit still. The future is an achievement. It has required each generation to struggle and meet the demands of a new age, and now it’s our turn.”
Obama spoke of the need for innovation, education, new energy and transportation infrastructure initiatives and immigration solutions. He talked about rebuilding America and simplifying the tax system. He announced that all federal employees had already had a 2-year freeze placed on any pay hikes and that we need to freeze domestic spending, taking it back to Eisenhower-era levels. He praised the military men who defend our country and announced that they would be brought home from Iraq in July. He also announced that gays may now serve openly in the military with the line, “Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”
The president called this time in our nation’s history “our generation’s Sputnik moment.” This prompted some interesting conversation on CBS, following the speech, when Bob Schaeffer wondered how many people listening to the speech were old enough to actually remember Sputnik (1957). Katie Couric promptly interjected that it was the year she was born. It hardly seems possible that, before Sputnik, there was no NASA (JFK began it) and that, on April 12, 2011 the Kennedy Space Center will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight (April 12, 1961), that of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space.
SPACE AGE REMARK
It was interesting, for me to hear the “Sputnik” remark during the speech, because we toured the Kennedy Space Center four days ago and, yes, I remember Sputnik, which was launched when I was in junior high school. [In Mr. Berhow’s science class in Independence High School I built a model of it for the science fair.]
On Friday, January 21, 2011, when I had “lunch with an astronaut” at the Kennedy Space Center, I pulled out a copy of Obama’s remarks about NASA (made in Florida on April 15, 2010 at NASA,) At that time, Obama announced “Today, I’d like to talk about a new chapter in space exploration” and went on to say, “I am 100% committed to the mission of NASA and its future. Because, if we fail to press forward, we are ceding our imperative to press forward and that’s part of our national character.” I asked former astronaut John Fabian, (Pullman, Washington), who flew on the ’83 Challenger mission and the ’85 Discovery mission to comment.
Fabian responded, “NASA only gets Â½ of 1% of the federal budget. I don’t think we can do the job for less than 1%. Any nation that doesn’t have 1% to invest in its future might not have one.” The former astronaut quickly added that he was speaking as a private citizen and said, “I believe that.”
HUMOR IN SPEECH
Obama did a good job of blending humor into his serious remarks. One comment that got an appreciative chuckle was this one: “I have heard rumors that a few of you still have concerns about our new Health Care.Law. Let me first say that anything can be improved. If you have ideas about how to make this law better or more affordable, let’s hear them.” Earlier in his speech, Obama had noted that repealing the Health Care Reform bill (which the new Republican Congressional majority has made a priority) would cost the country dearly. [“A quarter of a trillion dollars would be added to the budget if the new Health Care bill were rescinded.”] Obama also said, “I’m not willing to tell James Howard (a Texas native and brain cancer patient present in the audience) that his treatment might not be covered.” The president urged, “Let’s fix what needs fixing and let’s move forward.”
The other humorous bit in the speech involved salmon. Noting that the last major reorganization of the federal government took place in the age of black-and-white TV, Obama urged a streamlining of wasteful federal bureaucracy. Salmon was the specific example. There are 12 departments that regulate salmon for exporting. The interior department regulates salmon when it’s in fresh water, commerce when it’s in salt water and, said Obama to laughter, “It’s probably even more complicated once they’ve been smoked.”
HUMANIZING HIS TALKING POINTS: HUMAN PROPS
All presidents attempt to “humanize” their points by bringing in some human props. Obama did a good job of having real people on hand to illustrate his speech’s talking points. James Howard, mentioned above, served as a human illustration for the Health Care Reform Bill. Kathy Proctor, 55, served as a “human prop” to illustrate the need to retrain for the jobs of the future. Kathy used to work in the furniture industry, but, when the jobs disappeared, she went back to school and is training for work in the biotechnology field. Human props for education were Bruce Randolph and Miss Waters (principal) in a Denver school that now has a 97% graduation rate, following school reform prompted by Obama’s “Race to the Top” education initiative, which will replace the disastrous (and costly) “No Child Left Behind,” widely viewed by seasoned educators (150 years in my own family, going back continuously to 1927) as a huge, ineffectual, unworkable boondoggle.
My favorite human prop for Obama’s State of the Union remarks was Brandon Fisher of Berlin, Pennsylvania. Brandon’s small company, Center Rock, specializes in a new kind of drilling technology. When he learned of the trapped Chilean miners, Brandon offered to try to drill a 2,000 foot hole in the ground to rescue them, and, 37 days later, the Chilean miners were brought to the surface, thanks to the technology devised by Brandon Fisher’s small Pennsylvania company. As one of his employees at the scene said, “We proved that Center Rock is a little company, but we do big things.”
OBAMA’s CONCLUSION: SAVING THE BEST FOR LAST
President Obama: “None of this will be easy. All of it will take time. And it will be harder because we will argue about everything. Some countries don’t have this problem. As contentious and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on earth
(Big cheer here).
“We may have differences. in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We all believe that this is a place that says, ‘˜You can make it if you try.’ This is a country where anything is possible, no matter who you are, no matter where you come from. That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight, and why a working class kid from Scranton (VP Joe Biden) can sit behind me. That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father’s Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House (John Boehner) in the greatest nation on Earth.” (I was a bit worried that Boehner was going to start actively bawling at that point, as he is prone to do, as the cameras showed him misting up.)
Moving on from the example of Brandon Fisher’s small drilling company that “does big things” and dug the hole that rescued the Chilean miners, Obama ended his speech this way: “We do big things. From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of people who do big things — I’m not sure how we’ll reach that better place beyond the horizon, but I know we’ll get there. We do big things. The dream of America endures. And tonight, more than 2 centuries later, it’s because of our people that our nation goes forward.”