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Brilliant Speeches Only Get You So Far

Once again, Obama delivered rhetorical gold. But great oratory does not translate into votes on Capitol Hill.

01.28.10 12:09 AM ET

Barack Obama’s State of the Union address is a reminder of a fact that people manage to somehow forget again and again: The man is really good at delivering formal set-piece speeches. He also has a great speechwriting staff. Thus the address was, in my view, a triumph. It opened with a brilliant framing of the context for his administration, it demonstrated human warmth, it made cogent policy arguments, and it dinged the opposition without appearing mean-spirited.

That said, what we’ve learned time and again over the past year is that there’s only so far that great speeches get you. To govern, you need Congress to pass bills. And to get Congress to pass bills, you need 60 votes in the Senate. Obama has done a good job, at times, of putting the Republican leadership on the defensive and the State of the Union should help do just that. Obama seized the mantle of responsibility, pragmatism, and seriousness while challenging the GOP to show some good faith and willingness to be a constructive partner in government. But what he’s never been able to do is to generate the kind of specific, concrete political pressure on incumbent Republican senators that inspires them to vote “yes” on his bills or confirm his nominees. And nothing in his speech changes that dynamic.

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That’s not a flaw in the speech; it’s a problem a speech can’t solve. What Obama needs are strong Democratic candidates in states like North Carolina, Iowa, Arizona, and Kansas. And what he needs most of all is the kind of economic growth and reduced unemployment that would boost his overall approval rating. To that end, the speech outlined a number of promising-sounding jobs measures. Fundamentally, however, the total size of the jobs package being considered in the Senate—around $80 billion—is quite small compared to the economic gap facing the country.

For a day or two the speech should change the narrative in the press. It was a brilliant speech and that’s what brilliant speeches do. But when the dust clears, we’ll still live in a country where the Senate now requires 60 votes to act on anything, and where his party only has 59.

Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.