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President Obama’s maiden speech to Congress was loaded with durable lines, many aimed with precision at specific audiences or political objectives. As is often the case, the most memorable lines were often written with subtlety and delicacy to keep the speech above petty politics and blame-casting.
Here’s a translation of key passages:
“Now, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that for too long we have not always met these responsibilities – as a government or as a people. I say this not to lay blame or look backwards.”
TRANSLATION: He said it precisely to lay blame right on top of George W. Bush. The entire speech was laced with shots, some more obvious than others, at the former administration. They were all harnessed to a single purpose: convince the public that every risk Obama takes or dollar he spends is to clean up the mess Bush either left behind or failed to address.
“It’s a plan that won’t help speculators or that neighbor down the street who bought a house he could never hope to afford but it will help millions of Americans who are struggling with declining home values.”
TRANSLATION: The essence of this message – “don’t listen to that blowhard Rick Santelli over at CNBC.” White House officials privately admit some reckless homeowners could benefit from their rescue package. But they want the public to see the housing rescue package as the best of many bad options for keeping property values from tanking further. They know they will lose the fight if the plan is seen as a sop to the undeserving.
“I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now, especially when everyone is suffering in part from their bad decisions. I promise you — I get it.”
TRANSLATION: This was all about trying to prevent a populist backlash to the growing number of reckless Americans getting taxpayer bailouts. It was the chief aim of the speech. Again and again, Obama took shots at the risk-taking bankers, automakers and homebuyers. Obama wants to make sure the general public sees him as on their side – not on the side of undeserving folks who might get government money.
“You should also know that the money you've deposited in banks across the country is safe; your insurance is secure; you can rely on the continued operation of our financial system.”
TRANSLATION: This was Obama’s way of saying don’t take his recent doom and gloom language too darn seriously. Things are bad – but not devastatingly so. Bill Clinton said the president should be talking more optimistically about the country’s can-do spirit, and a big goal of the speech was to dial up the Obama version of hope. This was a start.
“History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry.”
TRANSLATION: As Rahm Emanuel often says, never allow a good crisis to go to waste. Obama wants to use this historic downturn to enact historic policies. They are never cheap and require public buy-in to this White House’s go-big-or-go-home mentality. History always provides a nice backdrop for such experiments.
“So let there be no doubt: health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year.”
TRANSLATION: Obama is doing health care reform this year, despite deficits and its high costs. There will be a lot of pressure - mainly from Republicans but also some centrist Democrats - to pay more attention to deficits after the recent spending spree. Obama will ignore them – and is in fact considering a push for near-universal coverage in the second half of this year.
“Let me be absolutely clear, because I know you’ll end up hearing some of the same claims that rolling back these tax breaks means a massive tax increase on the American people. If your family earns less than $250,000 a year – a quarter-million dollars a year -- you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime.”
TRANSLATION: Rich people will get a big fat tax increase to pay for health care and other programs – and Obama will set the terms of the political fight. That tax-hike line was straight from the campaign trail, repeated countless times for a reason. He knows he will soon find out if it was an effective approach (but probably not until next year when the tax hike will start to take effect).
“To relieve the strain on our forces, my budget increases the number of our soldiers and Marines. And to keep our sacred trust with those who serve, we will raise their pay, and give our veterans the expanded health care and benefits that they have earned.”
TRANSLATION: We may be packing up in Iraq, but we’re not wimps. Obama, while focused mostly on domestic policies these days, knows Republicans will never stop trying to paint Democrats as soft on security. Two ways Obama has projected strength, both on the campaign trail and as president, is to emphasize his plans to expand the military and to put more troops in Afghanistan.
“I know that it's easy to lose sight of this truth -- to become cynical and doubtful; consumed with the petty and the trivial.”
TRANSLATION: That would be you, Republicans, reporters or anyone else who diverts attention from the big issues by jumping into conventional political fights. This is an attempt to elevate himself as the first president of the 21st century and diminish critics as whining carpers. This worked magically on the campaign trail. The task gets harder when the cynics and critics are those outside of Washington concerned about the spending and bailouts.
“We are not quitters.”
TRANSLATION: This was the emotional moment of the night. You’d have to have a cold heart not to appreciate a young girl from a poor town telling the president “we’re not quitters.” The line also summons the spirit the White House thinks Congress and the public will need in the tough months ahead.