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Published January 27 2011

Forum editorial: A soaring speech by president is not enough

One need not be a fan of President Barack Obama to recognize a good speech. The president’s State of the Union address Tuesday night was a demonstration of his considerable oratorical skills. It was delivered with seriousness, humor and candor. It was heavy on the symbolism of American exceptionalism, while pragmatic about the nation’s dangerous economic circumstances. Interrupted by more than 40 episodes of bipartisan applause, the speech’s deeper theme was the Democratic president’s apparent willingness – eagerness, really – to work with Republicans in Congress.

But a soaring speech does not necessarily translate into substantive action. An expression of willingness to cooperate in order to move the nation in the right direction does not necessarily mean competing political and economic ideologies will agree on what the right direction should be.

For example, when the president said he would veto any legislation that included congressional “earmarks,” he was applauded. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has dismissed anti-earmark rhetoric as “a lot of pretty talk.” Ironically, new North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven said shortly after he was elected that he was not in favor of banning earmarks. As governor, he understood the value of targeted earmarks to his state. So earmarks, which have become symbols of allegedly irresponsible federal spending, have bipartisan fans in Congress.

Apparently disregarding one of the major reasons Democrats took a beating on Nov. 2, the president vigorously defended his health care reform act. He acknowledged that the law needed tweaking and fixing here and there, but he did not back off its core provisions. He might be in sync with the nation’s pulse on this one. The latest round of polls shows that while a majority of Americans still do not like the law, a similar majority is against repeal. That might seem contradictory, but it also might mean that as Americans take advantage of the first activated provisions of the law, they like what they see.

The president also seems to be enjoying a kind of Clinton-esque comeback-kid moment. His job-approval ratings are up some 10 points, to the mid-50s, in the past couple of months. Congressional job-approval ratings remain lowest in the history of poll-taking, at below 20 percent – no appreciable change since Republicans made big gains on Election Day.

It was a good speech. The president said several things with which all Americans can agree and even applaud. His words suggest he’s moved to the right – or at least from the left toward the middle. But the nation needs more than words. Given the president’s anti-business bent and his core liberal principles, it’s uncertain if he got the message of Nov. 2. His actions in the next few months, not the words of an arguably excellent speech, will be what matter.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.