I thought it was a pretty damn good speech, both in content and in delivery; the latter, at least, assures me that if Obama wins the presidency, I might actually be able to sit through watching a live presentation of a State of the Union address, which is something I’ve not been able to do for six years.
Others have more directly discussed the content of the speech, so I won’t touch on that. What I will say is that I think the speech offers up an example of the contrast I’ve perennially noted between Democrats and Republicans, which is that in general I think Democrats prefer their presidents to be smart, while Republicans don’t really put much of a premium on that at all. The current Bush is clearly over head in his position and has never not been; Ronald Reagan, the modern exemplar of a Republican president, was very likely senile before he left office, and no great intellectual shakes before then. By contrast, Bill Clinton was famously a Rhodes Scholar, and Al Gore, who as we all remember won the popular vote in 2000, is no slacker on the brains front either. Hillary Clinton, also manifestly not stupid. And then there’s Obama, law professor. John McCain’s intelligence would certainly be an upgrade from the current occupant of the White House, but of the three candidates now seriously contending, I think it’s clear he’s the Bronze in the brains department.
Now, to be sure, having lots of brains doesn’t guarantee a great leader: Jimmy Carter was plenty smart, but it didn’t do him much good in the running of things; likewise I’d suggest Richard Nixon was the smartest Republican president since at least Teddy Roosevelt, and look what it got him. There are lots of other things that need to be there in order to lead. But I do think who fronts the political party says something about the party itself. The Republican party doesn’t want a president who thinks; it wants a president who will allow other people to think for him — all the smart guys in the GOP are doing something other than running for president (Bush has taken this a step further, since not only doesn’t he think, but he’s not particularly happy when other people try to think for him; thus whichever smart people he hires are dumped the first time they say “now, wait a minute…” to his agenda, even on practical grounds). I don’t intend to hold up the Democratic party as one where wisdom is at a premium (heh heh heh ha!), but at the very least I suspect they see their presidential aspirants as leaders rather than figureheads to work policy through.
Likewise, this is not to take away from the fact that the speech was Obama’s accomplishment, not an accomplishment of a Democrat per se. Hillary Clinton is plenty smart, but you would never in a million years see her give a speech like that on the road — not because of the specific content, mind you, but with that tenor and heft and length. Clinton is no more than an adequate orator, and in any event I suspect she fears the risk of electoral vulnerability that a speech of the sort Obama gave presents. Make no mistake that if Obama hadn’t hit that speech right, it could have blown up in his face; it wouldn’t have stopped him from becoming the Democratic candidate (I think that’s inevitable at this point) but it could have hurt him and given the GOP folks a place to jab at right through November. Clinton wouldn’t think of exposing herself like that; she wouldn’t think it was necessary or advisable (chalk me up as one of those who think her momentary choking up in New Hampshire was unscripted). And she’s probably right, since the GOP loathes her with a passion uncontested. Be that as it may, she’s also constrained by her own choice.
Obama, on the other hand, seems to be willing to take these sorts of flyers from time to time. He knows his rhetorical skills are something that bind people to him, and he also knows that its something he has that neither Clinton or McCain has got or are going to get, and he also knows he among the candidates gets credit for his own words. If McCain or Clinton has a pretty turn of phrase, you wonder which speechwriter wrote it. When Obama has one, you suspect its from him (the going line on the speech is that Obama wrote the first draft, had a speechwriter fiddle with it, and then handled the revisions). Being smart and eloquent is his thing, and it might be the thing that ultimately propels him to the White House.
Will it be enough to make him a good president? I don’t think so. But I know that I’ve had two terms of a president not being particularly smart or eloquent, and it doesn’t seem to be working out particularly well. I wouldn’t be averse to trying the other way for a while, and see where that takes us.