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Nation’s Reaction to Obama’s Congress Speech Gauged

February 25, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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President Obama's address to the joint session of Congress and the nation blended confidence that the country will weather the recession with warnings of a tough road ahead. Newspaper editors from across the nation assess the public reaction.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, reaction to last night’s presidential address. Gwen Ifill has that story.

GWEN IFILL: Under the Capitol dome last night, members of Congress attempted to gauge how their constituents would react to President Obama’s first major address. Lawmakers spoke with the NewsHour’s Kwame Holman.

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN, D-Md.: He set out some very bold strokes here, big call to action. This was about big things, because we face a big crisis here at home.

REP. GREG WALDEN, R-Ore.: The devil’s always in the details, but Americans are hurting. I was in small business for 21 years. It’s a huge unpredictable cost for all of us, and, clearly, reform’s necessary.

SEN. KENT CONRAD D-N.D.: Look, I want to be very clear: He’s got the outline and a blueprint, a good beginning. The first five years of what he’s proposing, I’m encouraged by. But the broader question for me is what happens the second five years.

REP. MARY FALLIN, R-Okla.: We know that people are losing their jobs and that people face foreclosures. And we need to help people stay in their homes and do all they can to have a good-paying job. So it’s just going to be working through those issues, finding common ground when we can.

GWEN IFILL: Newspapers across the country splashed the president’s speech across their front pages today, reaching constituents more directly, and on editorial pages declaring the substance of the president’s proposals as sound or off the mark.

So how did the president’s speech and the Republican response resonate, as they say, outside the Beltway? For that, we are joined by four editorial page editors: Nolan Finley of the Detroit News; Harold Jackson of the Philadelphia Inquirer; J.R. Labbe of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram; and Carol Hunter of the Des Moines Register.

Starting with tone — I want to start with you, Nolan Finley — how do you think the president pulled off the balance, just on tone, last night?

NOLAN FINLEY, Detroit News: Well, on tone, I was encouraged that he sounded more hopeful than he has the first few weeks of his administration. I know former President Clinton advised him last week that he needed to be a little perkier, he needed to exude more confidence, that consumers are scared and they need to see and they need to hear a president say that things are going to get better, and I think he pulled that off last night.

GWEN IFILL: J.R. Labbe, how did it sound to you?

J.R. LABBE, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Well, he definitely gets points on style and delivery. Without question, this president is a gifted orator.

He sounded extremely determined and passionate. So if you were looking at the showman that he was last night, I think he hit on the points and the style of being confident and determined and hopeful, and yet realistic — at least in how he was trying to deliver his words — in what the tough road is ahead.

I think when you start to drill down in some of the substance, that’s where the worry part of our “Hope and Worry” headline came in.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we’re going to come right back to that. I was to ask Harold Jackson first what he thought about the tone last night.

HAROLD JACKSON, Philadelphia Inquirer: Well, I think it was about more than tone. I think there was quite a bit of substance in what the president had to say. It wasn’t simply style.

If you evaluate his speech, if you look at it closely, you see that he clearly set an agenda for America to move beyond the economic crisis, on not just the banking and mortgage issues, but on a number of other areas where this country has been lagging in dealing with situations that affect our economy, including health care and energy policy.

GWEN IFILL: Carol Hunter, you know, people did talk earlier this week and last week about whether the president was too doom-and-gloom. What did you hear last night?

CAROL HUNTER, Des Moines Register: We heard general optimism. We think he pulled this tricky balancing act off pretty well.

I mean, on the one hand, he has to be realistic — that’s what he said he would do throughout his campaign with the American people — and he did have some tough medicine in there, saying that what has been spent so far may not be enough and there may need to be more set aside.

Yet there were almost Churchillian overtones to this speech. He really called the nation to action and really did set forth a vision on reducing oil dependence, reforming health care, and improving our education system.

Expensive proposals worry public

GWEN IFILL: OK, J.R. Labbe, you mentioned the hope versus the worry headline. When the president tries to talk about all these solutions, these expensive solutions that we just heard Jim talking to Timothy Geithner about for the nation's financial system, for instance, or the housing crisis, and yet he's at the same time talking about fiscal discipline and cutting the deficit, how do you see that balance playing out?

J.R. LABBE: Well, I think for our readership in this very conservative part of the country, they heard a real disconnect. As they were listening to the president say, "This budget will do this for energy and we will do that for health care and we will do this for education," our readers were hoping to hear, "And how do you expect to pay for that?"

He didn't address at all the two shootin' wars that we're still very much engaged in, except to say we are going to increase pay and benefits for our men and women in uniform, which was a very positive message for our readers to hear, but there was some real concerns.

We don't think that you can separate a domestic agenda of energy, health care, and education from our foreign policy and what's going on with our military.

So I think our readers were uplifted, perhaps, by his style -- as I said earlier, and Harold took some umbrage with -- but they weren't very impressed with the substance and how you pay for all of this.

GWEN IFILL: OK, Harold Jackson, what about that disconnect? Did you hear it or see it? Or do your readers hear it or see it?

HAROLD JACKSON: Yes. Well, of course, our part of the country is much different. We're here in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania region. We serve the states of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, where the president is quite popular.

We do know that the president's budget will come out tomorrow, and we expect to see more details on spending. What I'm saying, though, is the president clearly said that we have to address these issues -- education, health, and energy policy -- if we're going to do something about the long-range economic future of this country. And I think that's a message that should resonate with people.

GWEN IFILL: I can just follow up on that with you? He said that these are things to be addressed. Were you satisfied that they were addressed in that speech last night?

HAROLD JACKSON: Not in that speech. I didn't expect everything to be addressed in one speech. The devil is in the details, as they say. I would agree with the other editorial page editor on that. And we look forward to seeing the details to see if he can actually accomplish what he has set out as his agenda for the future.

Skepticism of expanding government

GWEN IFILL: Carol Hunter, did he go as far as you would have liked to see him go on the issues you care about?

CAROL HUNTER: Certainly not for any editorial page editor. I think there is an extreme reservoir of goodwill in Iowa, among Democrats especially. They take a great deal of pride of launching Barack Obama in a way, with giving him the win in the caucuses.

But Republicans, too, I think everyone wants our president to succeed. Everyone is waiting for that budget that will be released tomorrow. Many of the things he said, for example, on health care, he didn't really go into at all how he would pay for that. He seemed to hint that, just through efficiencies, through things like medical records, you could get much of the savings, and then said that that would help with the Medicare deficit, but that's a much bigger problem than electronic medical records will solve.

GWEN IFILL: Nolan Finley, is President Obama, in some respects, more popular than his policies, especially in the area of the country where you are, where the rubber is really hitting the road?

NOLAN FINLEY: Yes, I heard a commentator say that last night, and I think that's very apt. There's a lot of skepticism about this rapid expansion of government.

And there were a lot of contradictions in that speech last night. We're going to expand government at every level and in every way, and yet we're going to cut the deficit in half. Well, you think about that, and if you're going to do all of this spending and still cut the deficit, people understand that that means higher taxes. And whether you're in Michigan or anywhere, higher taxes in a time of an economic downturn scare you to death.

He also said, you know, he's going to create jobs in the private sector and then introduced a lot of new initiatives that will kill jobs, most notably cap-and-trade.

So I think there's a lot of skepticism about this rapid pace he's headed on to expand the scope and size of government.

GWEN IFILL: If he spoke -- I'm going to stay with you for a moment -- if he focused last night mostly on economic, energy, education, and health care, did any of that resonate? Or did it seem like putting too much on the plate all at once to you?

NOLAN FINLEY: What I would like to have seen him do is focus his immediate attention, all of his attention on solving this recession, get us through this crisis, and then deal with the other issues, and then take these things, energy, education, take them one at a time and see how much support he can get for a bigger government role in those areas.

But right now, the entire focus ought to be on getting us through the recession. And I thought -- you know, I felt at points last night that he was using the economic crisis as an opportunity to press a much larger agenda that has nothing to do with stimulus.

Other Obama talking points

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, J.R. Labbe? Is there a much larger agenda there which is not what should be front and center right now?

J.R. LABBE: Well, I think you have to look at the context in which this speech was given. While it was not an official State of the Union address, in all intents and purposes, it was.

The president has been out on the stump for the last week-and-a-half or so talking about the stimulus package. I think it was important that he expand on that with some additional initiatives to give some picture to the American public as a whole as to where he's going beyond that.

It is a multifaceted job. And the economy is not the only issue we're facing, although it is by far the biggest crisis. It has national security implications in it, as well as what it's doing to the average Joe and Jane who are faced with foreclosure and losing their work and the issues there.

But I was actually pleased that he didn't go beyond the three additional initiatives of energy, education, and health care, because sometimes those speeches can just get crammed with all kinds of initiatives...

GWEN IFILL: Did you expect him to speak at all about Afghanistan or foreign policy?

J.R. LABBE: I had hoped, frankly, and I believe our readers had, as well, that he would have made more comment about the 17,000 troops that he has announced we will be sending to that country and, from what we can see, with no discernible vision or a plan or strategy for what they're going to do once they get there.

It's troubling to us. We have a huge number of military veterans in our area. Of course, the defense industry is an economic engine for us. And so we were listening for some kind of signal as to what was happening in Afghanistan specifically and didn't get what we were hoping we'd hear last night.

GWEN IFILL: Carol Hunter, were there any signals that you were listening for?

CAROL HUNTER: Well, of course, Iowa is the number-one ethanol producer and is number-two as far as installed wind-generation capacity. So his comments about renewable energy certainly found a welcome audience here in Iowa.

Also, all of our polling, going back several years now, does show an awful big interest in reforming the health care system. There are so many Iowans that do not have health insurance. That has consistently rated as a high interest.

I think a lot of our readers were encouraged to hear him return to those topics that they heard so often on the campaign trail that this bad hand of cards that he's been dealt at the first of his presidency hasn't derailed him from some of those things that he's been talking about for a couple of years now.

Evaluating the Republican response

GWEN IFILL: Before we go, I want to ask each of you about the Republican response last night that followed the president's speech from the governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal.

Starting with you, Harold Jackson, do you think it was effective?

HAROLD JACKSON: Well, I'm not sure that it was. He's getting some mixed reviews, not very good reviews. I think that America is looking for something beyond partisanship, and they didn't find that in the Republican answer.

This is a crisis situation. And just as what happened after 9/11, America is looking for its leaders to go beyond their party affiliation and show where they can find common ground. And the Republican response included very little of that.

GWEN IFILL: Nolan Finley, what did you think?

NOLAN FINLEY: Well, I think people understand that Republicans aren't driving this train. I'm not sure what Jindal could have said that would have had an impact here.

They're going to have to find where they can make an impact and where they have to dig in and fight, and I think they're really struggling to get to that point.

GWEN IFILL: J.R. Labbe, what did you think about last night's Republican response? And is there anything more that -- as Nolan Finley suggested, there's not much more that could have been done. What would you have liked to see?

J.R. LABBE: Well, I think that the governor was sort of set up to fail last night. There was so much expectation on him to be brilliant and, unfortunately, he wasn't.

He looked nervous. He's young. It was a national stage that I don't believe he was ready for. And beyond that, if Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin is the best that the Republican Party can do for their future, they've got some rough years ahead.

GWEN IFILL: Carol Hunter, did you have any expectations from the Republican response? Or did they exceed our match your other colleagues here?

CAROL HUNTER: Well, you were looking for some new ideas, and it tended to be what we've heard from Republicans for a while. I do think the party is struggling, yet needs to come up with both new messages, as well as new messengers.

GWEN IFILL: And who would that be? Who do you see as a possible new messenger? Was there just no room for a Republican response? Is that what you're saying?

CAROL HUNTER: No, it's that the bright new faces that you would expect to see lining up to run again in 2012, Jindal certainly was poised to be that kind of spokesman and new star for the party, didn't show himself too well in one of his first big stages. But the Republican Party needs that kind of bright, new face, but also a message with that face to get a new audience.

GWEN IFILL: Well, when those faces surface, they'll be showing up in Iowa. Thank you all very much, Nolan Finley of the Detroit News, Harold Jackson of the Philadelphia Inquirer, J.R. Labbe of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Carol Hunter of the Des Moines Register.