Tuned In

The Morning After: Obama (and Jindal), Between the Lines

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President Barack Obama delivered his address to Congress last night, and in a shocking development, MSNBC beat CNN in the department of busying up the screen with silly but riveting graphics. Just as CNN did during the debates last fall, MSNBC got a dial group to listen to the speech, this time composed of McCain voters (the red line) and Obama voters (the blue line).

You might have expected the two groups to diverge wildly, and that was sometimes true, but mostly both lines stayed pretty steadily near the top of the positive side of the graph. You could see that as evidence that Obama knocked it out of the park. Or you could see it as part of the same phenomenon that means even Republican congresspeople have to stand and applaud the speech (at least part of the time). Namely, it’s a Presidential Address, it’s meant to be stirring and hopeful, and that’s just what you do. Unless the President brandishes a weapon and attempts to lead the crowd in a chant of “Death to America!” it probably seems simply churlish to turn your dial into the negative. 

In other words, the dial-group lines didn’t add much to my understanding of the night, but I still couldn’t take my eyes off them the entire time I had MSNBC on. I am beginning to think that all TV should incorporate dial-group lines. 

Speaking of dialing into the negative, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal delivered the Republican response. This is always a thankless task, doomed to failure—even Charles Krauthammer on Fox said Jindal had to present the “unpopular” image of Republicans as “Grinches” on the stimulus—but Jindal’s speech was particularly off and out of place even by the past lackluster standard.

For starters, it played less as a rebuttal than as the first speech of the Jindal ’12 campaign. His tone was oddly insistent yet aggressively smiley, in a way that kept making me expect him to ask if I didn’t also want to get the undercoating for just a few bucks extra. But mostly, it just seemed like the right speech for the wrong venue, with anecdotes—like the one about the sheriff frustrated by bureaucrats during Katrina—that have probably generated laughs and applause on the stump but in this format felt like watching a laugh-track comedy without the laugh track. 

As for Obama’s speech, I won’t add to the analysis, except to say that he made a clear decision to go more positive and optimistic than in his recent public appearances, frequently trotting out a jaunty smile. And he seemed to be using the room to send a message outside the room—including applause lines that Republicans had little choice but to stand for, and hanging a light on the public largesse in the stimulus bill that the Republicans pointedly did not stand and applaud for.

If the polls are right and voters like his gestures of bipartisanship (for which, recent polls say, they give him far more credit than Republicans), then he was clearly trying to make the most of that here.  

But bipartisanship ends after the first cable-news commercial break, and the post-speech commentary quickly divided into partisan camps. Keith Olbermann had on Barbara Boxer and Robert Gibbs (who praised the speech as a “command performance,” suggesting he doesn’t know what the term means); Sean Hannity had Eric Cantor, new GOP chair Michael Steele and a segment on someone falling asleep at an Obama fiscal summit. 

CNN, meanwhile, made up for lost ground in the politics-tech-stunts category by doing a poll of reactions to the speech through the highly scientific method of soliciting opinions on Facebook. Call it 25 Random Things I Thought About the Obama Speech. Care to make it 26?