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The morning after: What did Obama and Jindal really tell us?

February 24, 2009 |  9:31 pm

President Barack Obama speaks to a joint session of Congress Feb. 24, 2009

Well, members of Congress sure won't have to drop their pants and skirts off for pressing at the dry cleaners this morning.

They were hardly sitting down at all on the House benches during President Obama's speech to a joint session Tuesday night. Maybe just pop some Aleve for their aching applauded-out hands.

It was a historic night with the nation's first African American president giving his first national speech inside the Capitol. In the words of a former TV comic, he sure is a good talker.

It wasn't technically a State of the Union speech, more of a Fate of the Union speech. But it had all the familiar dramatic elements: someone suffering from cancer, an unknown but earnest regular person plucked from obscurity to sit with the first lady. Sully was there for moustachioed gravitas. And the pathetic congressional sycophants angling for on-camera handshakes or autographs with the Main Man.

Obama's skills were on full display in that magnificent setting (talk about history!). For weeks he's been telling us how bad things are in the economy. Now that he's got his first $787.2-billion spending bill passed and signed and the markets have tanked, it was time for some modulation. No matter how warranted, Americans don't like too much pessimism, which is why Jimmy Carter started building Habitat houses four years earlier than he had planned.

So last night, as signaled by the speech excerpt the White House released early to help shape the cable TV chatter, Obama was saying: Things are really bad. But we're gonna come out of this OK, stronger, in fact.

A few minor muffs aside, the speech was well written and well delivered, public communications skills being an essential but often underrated ingredient in political leadership in the 24-hour news cycle. It was a skill the diffident then-President Bush never worked to master. His eyes jerked from one TelePrompter to the other, fearful of missing a word, and sending accidental signals of insincerity and not knowing his material: I'm reading this word for word.

Obama read his lines word for word too. But he did so flawlessly, turning his head smoothly side ...

Louisiana Republican Governor Bobby Jindal gives the GOP response from the governor's residence in Baton Rouge Feb 24, 2009

...to side, all the while reading off the TelePrompter but allowing his adoring congressional majority and many others to totally forget it.

In that sense Obama is like fellow Democrat Bill Clinton without the lower lip-biting affectation to show thoughtfulness. The smooth, convincing delivery conveying empathy, connection, sincerity. However, except for "I get it!", there were few memorable speech lines to live in history. Or rally rallies in coming weeks.

And certainly no recipe provided for how in this known world one country's government can pay for tax cuts for 95% of Americans, completely reform the entire healthcare system to cover everyone, develop an entire new energy system and technology, save the U.S. automobile industry, rebuild the country's crumbling transportation infrastructure as well as the entire educational system, stop high school dropouts, conquer cancer, save one-million-plus homeowners from foreclosure while bolstering the entire banking industry, protect national security by paying the military more, create "or save" 3.5 million new jobs, cut the trillion-dollar deficit in half in 46 months and one week, plus fight (and, who knows, maybe even not lose) a guerrilla war in a desolate mountainous region where no foreigners have "won" since Alexander.

And speaking of someone who spoke a lot about Iraq to become president, Obama had but a single sentence on that place in his speech: "We are now carefully reviewing our policies in both wars, and I will soon announce a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war."

Compared with all those ambitious ambitions and ideas, poor, not-so-old Bobby Jindal was toast before he walked down that lonely hallway in the governor's residence in Baton Rouge as the Republican responder. It was a hopeless assignment even if the personable, popular 37-year-old wasn't a rookie on the national stage.

When will the PR handlers of these responders -- whatever their party -- realize that coming from a historic, effusive, applauding Capitol Hill gang to one guy/gal talking alone to a staring camera and a gaggle of bored TV technicians earning evening overtime doesn't work? You need President Barack Obama's hands and his back-up speech text during his address to a joint session of Congress Feb 24, 2009an audience, real live, breathing supporters who laugh at the laugh lines and applaud at the applause lines just like they do for the real thing up in D.C.

Even a dummy like David Letterman knows that.

With his moment on stage, Jindal's adrenalin was clearly flowing and he ripped through the first half of his remarks like a parent eager to finish the bedtime story because "The Sopranos" rerun is coming on downstairs.

He was reciting. Rapidly. Not speaking. The speech read much better than it looked. (The texts of both, btw, are here for Obama and over here for Jindal.)

On paper or the screen, Jindal made important fundamental differentiations with Obama's federal-focused relief. "The strength of America is not found in its government," the governor asserted. "It's found in its people."

Jindal's is a compelling story, too. The son of an immigrant of color who brought his family from an impoverished faraway land to America awed by the openness, opportunity and abundance of the famous place. And the son went to school and worked hard and got elected to Congress and has two cute children and then returned home to right his chronically corrupt state as a reformer in public service. Does any of this sound familiar yet?

"Americans can do anything!" Jindal's father told him one day in the grocery store. And the son remembers.

For those who didn't hang around to watch the response, Jindal got, well, killed. (He might want to drop the teeny Bobby moniker to return to his childhood name of Piyush, just as Barry Obama became Barack.) On one level Jindal's speech is a measure of how thin the Republican bench is; except for maybe Mitt Romney, there aren't many other experienced, recognizable folks to call up from the triple-A leagues.

And that is a little-noticed but sad part of the Bush legacy for Republicans and a democracy that needs a healthy opposition as a political check.

No. 43 chose to cling to Dick Cheney as his VP in 2004 instead of bringing in a fresh heir apparent for four years of on-the-job White House training and building national name recognition before assuming GOP leadership. For that fateful decision, Republicans and the country will be paying the price now for several more years, at least.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photos, from top: President Obama speaks to a joint session of Congress. Credit: Evan Vucci / Associated Press. Gov. Bobby Jindal delivers the GOP response. Credit: Associated Press. Obama makes a point during his address. Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images.

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