President Obama is scheduled to give his second Oval Office address in a bit less than an hour. Ostensibly, the purpose of the speech is to mark the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq. But make no mistake: this speech has a clear political goal. At this point, two months before the midterms, the “fundamentals” about which you have heard me discuss on so many occasions are – if not yet set in concrete – rapidly drying. And that is bad news for Obama and his fellow Democrats. They will go into the midterms with a jobless rate hovering above 9%, anemic economic growth, and with Obama’s approval ratings in the low-to-mid 40% range. The latest Gallup generic ballot, meanwhile, has Republicans up by 10% – a historically huge margin. Collectively, these are all indications of significant Republican gains come November. Obama can do almost nothing to change these fundamentals during the next 60 days.
This leaves him with one strategy: to remind voters about what he inherited when he took office, what he has accomplished so far, and to preach patience. Critics suggest that by trumpeting the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, he risks replicating Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment when he announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq. But those critics forget that Bush’s 2003 speech preceded his 2004 reelection and was viewed rather favorably at the time. In any case, Obama has very little to lose here – he needs to take advantage of any victory he can.
In addition to reminding voters that he has kept a campaign promise, look for Obama to portray the economic benefits likely to accrue from the drawdown of U.S. combat troops, and to use it to signal a renewed focus on the economy more generally.
I’ve commented before about the difficulty in making speeches from the Oval Office. It requires an entirely different skill set from giving a campaign speech before a live audience. The trick to making an effective Oval Office speech is to convince the viewer that you are talking to her, in her home, one on one. Obama was notably unsuccessful at pulling this off during his first primetime Oval Office address dealing with the Gulf Oil Spill. He seemed visibly nervous, uncomfortable and decidedly unpresidential. Let’s see how he does tonight.
I’ll try to live blog the speech on this specific post. As always, feel free to join in with comments.
8 p.m. As always, we are watching the NBC feed since it’s the only non-French speaking station we get here.
Note that it never hurts as President to wrap yourself in the flag, especially as commander in chief.
He’s on. Looks like a different backdrop than I saw during his last Oval Office speech. Is that right? Have they redecorated?
Here comes the praise for troops…this is a nonpartisan, that is, bipartisan tactic.
And campaign promise fulfilled! Good stuff. Now he has to hope Iraq doesn’t implode. Hard to see how he can promise to remain committed to Iraq without leaving some flexibility regarding renewed military support if it goes to hell in a hand basket. This will open him up to criticism, but it’s criticism that he’s willing to incur. Still, he’s trying to walk a very fine line here.
Wow – mentioning Bush in a positive light. Again, trying to step above the partisan fray. Smart politics.
(Jeff notes that the Oval Office has indeed undergone a makeover- thanks Jeff.)
This is really an interesting address so far. He has apparently decided that emphasizing the commander-in-chief aspect of the job may strike a non-partisan chord among voters; they will view him as chief executive more than Democrat politician. I really expected him to pivot more quickly to address the economy.
Ah, here it comes. Linking security abroad to economic security at home. By preceding it with the foreign policy discussion, he’s hoping, I think, to make the economy a nonpartisan issue as well. Interesting tactic. The unspoken message here: Republican opposition to his economic policies is unpatriotic.
In many respects, this speech is very Reaganesque – big on symbols, optimism, waving the flag.
And now back to veterans. Very interesting effort here to weave government spending into the larger theme of supporting the troops. Again, the idea here is to discuss the economy in non-partisan terms.
He seems much more comfortable giving this speech than he did with the Gulf speech. But he still has trouble reading the teleprompter in a way that makes it appear he is speaking from memory.
8:21. And it’s over, at about 20 minutes, by my count.
Interesting speech. Deliberately pitched at a higher level, focusing on the end of combat operations and thus cuing his commander in chief functions, while staying away from partisan issues and from any substantive discussion of the economy.
Obviously, critics are going to jump on the inconsistency implicit in the pledge to stand by Iraq while also “turning the page” – can we have it both ways? Politically, however, I don’t see much support for renewing combat operations in Iraq even if it does begin to disintegrate so, at least for now, it was probably the right tactic.
Was it a game changer? Not by a long shot. But he has limited options at this point as the midterms loom. Given the state of the fundamentals, the decision to play this as a straight, above-the-fray, no politics, bipartisan (see the reference to his call to Bush!) speech celebrating the end of combat operations probably makes good political sense.
Of course, the first thing pundits will look at in the next few days is whether the speech produces a boost in his approval ratings. I suspect it might, but if so it will have little effect on the more fundamental issues that will drive the midterm election.
One other thing to keep in mind: audiences for these addresses tend to be skewed toward the President’s supporters, regardless of party. This means that among viewers the speech is likely to get high ratings, but we shouldn’t extrapolate from this to assume it will be equally well received by the public at large.
I’m on the road for much of tomorrow, but if I get a chance I’ll try to assess the post-mortems. But in the meantime, let me know what you thought. Good speech? Game changer? Something else?