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Hope Is Good; Action Is Better

There's been a lot of chatter lately about hope and President Obama's alleged failure to provide it. Tonight's speech included at least a few lines designed, perhaps, to answer that criticism. Most notable among them was a passage, right at the beginning, that evoked FDR during the Great Depression:

while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken; though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.

Overall, though, I thought the optimism and emotional uplift was actually pretty sparse tonight. After proclaiming that America would recover, he spent most of his speech describing his plan for making that happen. And he was quite business-like about it.

He began by reminding everybody of what he's already accomplished in a short time--with the expansion of health insurance for kids and, more important, the massive economic recovery package. He then went through his agenda: Stabilizing the banks and re-regulating Wall Street, then moving through his Domestic Big Three: Energy, health care, and education.

Obama wasn't incredibly specific about his plans; this wasn't a laundry list with dollar figures and calls for specific pieces of legislation. But I think that's partly a measure of the sheer ambition on display. When the biggest item on your health care agenda is to regulate managed care, as it was (necessarily) for Clinton in the late 90s, you have time to get into the weeds of policy. When you're promising to overhaul the entire health insurance system--and that's just one portion of your domestic agenda--you can't afford to get bogged down.

But Obama infused his ambition with notes of caution and sobreity. He described the huge deficits handed down from the Bush administraiton as a "stark reality"--one that would force everybody, including Obama himself, to defer some legislative dreams. He warned that helping the banks was necessary, not because it felt good but because it was essential to avoiding even greater economic calamity. While restating his commitment to enact health care reform this year, he went out of his way to say "I suffer no illusions that this will be an easy process."

This wasn't, to be clear, a broad call for sacrifice. Obama continues to forswear taxes on all but the very wealthy, a position that will--someday, if not right away--necessarily limit his agenda. But nor was this speech an impassioned attempt at emotional uplift.

Even his introduction of heroes, a now-perfunctory feature of presidential addresses to Congress, fit this mold. During that section, Obama cited the example Ty Sheoma Bethea, a young girl from South Carolina who'd written Congress beseeching them to provide funding that might help repair her dilpaidated school. She was sitting next to Michelle Obama, in the congressional gallery, and it was a genuinely moving moment. But the emphasis was on the challenge ahead--what still needs to be done, to save this girl's school and, by implication, to rescue America from its period of crisis.

So did Obama fail? Is he still too somber for his own good? It's possible. I've never been a great judge of rhetoric and how it plays with the public. And when you're talking about the economy, certainly, perceptions have a way of shaping reality--for better or for worse.

But right now, I tend to think, Americans crave solutions rather than comfort. They will feel confident again when they see action that makes their lives better--by creating jobs, by raising their wages, by making sure they can get affordable medicla care. And that's what Obama was promising the people tonight--not a government that feels their pain, but a government that makes the pain go away.

In the end, of course, Obama's presidency will rise or fall based on his ability to deliver on that promise. This speech, most likely, will prove no more than a footnote in that effort. But it's hard to imagine another speech could have served Obama's larger agenda more effectively.

--Jonathan Cohn