Even given that caveat, Obama's performance was noteworthy on a number of levels. He displayed his skill as an orator, including dropping into a little side humor about getting consensus on reducing the deficit. He addressed that "too depressing" criticism that has been floating around, without stoking the "rah, rah greatest country in the world!" stuff (what he said about Americans and our national character in tough times was mostly positive but not comparative -- except perhaps for the business about "time to lead" again.)
Several key elements of rhetoric emerged:
1) Speaking to Congress about "our responsibility" as elected leaders and addressing them as a co-equal branch of government. It was consensus building with fellow Dems, as he needs to hold them together around issues that have traditionally fractured the party.
2) His appeal to Americans to think of education as a form of national service is both new and useful. For adults in need of retraining or new skills, it makes reinventing oneself a patriotic act and part of building the nation instead of something to do because you have a deficiency. That helps, particularly for people resentful about how changing times are forcing them to totally remake their lives or weighing whether to invest scarce time and resources in education/retraining.
For teenagers -- particularly minority teenagers looking to Obama as a role model -- the line that "quitting school isn't just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country" -- has particular emphasis. There are many alienated teens who do not think of this as "their" country because of racial or religious prejudice. Obama is well aware that he has given these teens, and their parents, something new to think about simply by being President and defying their expectations. That he has couched his call to stay in school, and for parents to stay involved in their children's lives, as a matter of national service and service to self may prove a useful framing.
3) He was careful in his bailout pitch to address the resentment felt by some against "the neighbor up the street who bought a house he knew he could never afford, and the banks that pushed those loans anyway." For myself, I continue to be amazed at how many people still conceptualize the foreclosure crisis as being about speculators and stupid people taking loans they couldn't afford and living profligate lives. Folks, we passed that point well over a year ago. We are now in the systemic breakdown caused by our refusal to take sufficient action back in August '07. We are well past the subprime and into people who made good decisions and got caught in the economic flood. And, if we fail to address the problem now, it will continue to grow.
4) Nice jab at the previous administration on the torture, as well as a good reminder to supporters and the world that he already made good on a key campaign pledge to shut down Guantanamo.
5) I think it is a good idea to start priming folks for the end of the Bush tax cuts now and his effort to use that to redraft the tax code, given that the Bush tax cuts expire in 2010, an election year when Rs will try to make hey out of the idea of a "massive tax increase" by allowing the cuts to expire. Clearly the lessons of the stimulus package have been learned in terms of getting out there early and controlling the narrative. If the Obama team are smart, they will push this line so that in 2010 the meme will be that Republican obstructionism caused the tax cuts to expire because they refused to make the code fair for everyone.
On substance, getting to honest accounting by including expenses previously hidden by supplementals or by playing funky accounting games should appeal to fiscal conservatives -- and eliminates some of the ways faux fiscal conservatives will attack his budget cuts as "not real." I also wish him luck on reforming agriculture subsidies. With Vilsac as Ag Sec, and with his own grass roots organizations on the ground in traditional farm subsidy states, he may be able to sell modification as an "end to corporate welfare" while still "protecting the family farm."
On the downside, I still think cap-and-trade for carbon emissions is an idea whose time has gone. Cap-and-trade was an idea developed when it looked like technology had hit a limit and we wanted to do something to encourage private sector reform while technology caught up. But in the 15 years we debated cap-and-trade, technology has caught up. The fact that cap-and-trade is now embraced as a splendid market-based solution by the people who previously rejected it as a "carbon tax" shows that the technology has moved on and the momentum has swung to a point where the primary emitters understand that we could take more aggressive measures to reduce carbon emissions.
My reaction was "when you have new ideas, call me." For one thing, his Katrina schtick requires us to forget that the "bureaucrat in Washington" gumming up the works was a Republican party appartchik working in a system made inherently dysfunctional by a party that hates and distrusts government -- but enjoys looting it for themselves and their friends. I actually danced with that elephant during the Katrina business and it was a goat screw on every level, in large part because four years after Sept 11 the Bushies had utterly failed to develop any sort of coherent plan or coordination. Everything was about exercise of individual power over a jurisdiction, a rot that spread to state and local governments as it became clear that it was being treated by the major players as a zero sum game not a cooperative game.
I expect it played well with the base, and that the base are celebrating their own "real" leader and mocking Obama as an empty suit long on rhetoric or as a dangerous socialist out to expand federal power. At least I hope so. If the GOP keeps at it, they may actually suffer enough in 2010 to start thinking of new ideas.