In fact, overshadowing all the high points of the speech, unbelievably, the President virtually ignored the issues of the people who voted him into office. He spent about 30 seconds talking about getting an up or down vote on his judicial nominees. Otherwise, he “dissed” the social conservatives. In the conference call with conservatives the day before the speech, Karl Rove said that the 40-minute speech would be split half on domestic issues and half on foreign policy. Not so. Even the domestic issues that made the cut –– energy, budget, health care, immigration –– were framed with the Democrats in mind.
The theme of the President’s remarks was “hope and opportunity.” Conservatives had such high hopes for “their President.” This speech was an opportunity for him to make the case for the Iraq war –– briefly and powerfully –– and then move the nation beyond that quagmire to help the public see the bigger picture. In short, we hoped that he would be able to provide a view of the forest instead of a tour through the trees. The Democrat response –– which is usually a dismal exercise in futility –– was an example of what the President should have done. Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia) gave an exceptionally well-crafted speech –– made even more powerful by his rich, deep voice and authoritative delivery –– that focused on the two pivotal issues where his party differs from the President’s –– domestic “economic disparities” and “faulty foreign policy.” Instead of a laundry list of policy formulations, Mr. Webb developed a persuasive and emotional argument for the liberal position on the two issues. Though his arguments were often flawed, the power of his delivery and the emotional impact of his rhetoric will be what people remember.
The President had an opportunity in this speech to recapture the confidence and trust of the American people. That should have been his top priority. There were sections of the speech that developed strong, persuasive arguments. There were parts of the speech where he came through as thoroughly “presidential.” He scored points at the outset by his courtesy and graciousness to the Speaker. He scored points by his obvious strength in defense of his decisions regarding the war and his openness about the difficulties we face in that war. He ended with moving tributes to ordinary Americans who have done extraordinary things. The President’s recognition of their accomplishments embodied the spirit of our nation and reminded us of our resilience and potential. Only time will tell whether the President succeeded in convincing the public to take heart and believe again in the hope and opportunity of America.