A pre-emptive rebuttal

A PRE-EMPTIVE REBUTTAL…. One of the things I’ve always liked about Barack Obama speeches is that he refuses to talk down to the public. As Ezra Klein, reflecting on last night’s speech, noted that the address “was an explanation. The president told us what he was planning to do. And the speech was written as if he believed that we could understand him.”

Quite right. The president also seemed conscious, though, of the idea that there are some in our public discourse that may sow the seeds of confusion, and treat voters in a less respectful way. Earlier this week, speaking to the nation’s governors, Obama emphasized his desire to engage in an “honest debate” — it was a phrase he used the phrase a few times in a brief speech on Monday — as if to underscore his concern that some are being less than sincere.

Re-reading last night’s address again this morning, I noticed that Obama was speaking right past the lawmakers in the room, and effectively telling the public, “You’re going to hear some nonsense on the talk shows, but don’t believe it.”

At times, it was practically pre-emptive in its intentions. We might hear that Obama spent too much time looking backwards, so he said:

“Now, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that for too long, we have not always met these responsibilities — as a government or as a people. I say this not to lay blame or look backwards, but because it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we’ll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament.”

We might hear that Obama is just an old-school, big-government liberal, so he said:

“As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress to send me a recovery plan by President’s Day that would put people back to work and put money in their pockets. Not because I believe in bigger government — I don’t. Not because I’m not mindful of the massive debt we’ve inherited — I am. I called for action because the failure to do so would have cost more jobs and caused more hardships.”

We might hear that Obama’s housing plan is directed at those who least deserve help, so he said:

“It’s a plan that won’t help speculators or that neighbor down the street who bought a house he could never hope to afford, but it will help millions of Americans who are struggling with declining home values.”

We might hear that Obama’s financial plan rewards failed bankers, so he said:

“I understand that when the last administration asked this Congress to provide assistance for struggling banks, Democrats and Republicans alike were infuriated by the mismanagement and results that followed. So were the American taxpayers. So was I. So I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now, especially when everyone is suffering in part from their bad decisions. I promise you — I get it…. It’s not about helping banks — it’s about helping people.”

We might hear that government is bad and should just get out of the way, so he said:

“I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves; that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity. For history tells a different story….In each case, government didn’t supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise. It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive.”

We might hear that Obama is going to raise our taxes, so he was explicit about the point:

“In order to save our children from a future of debt, we will also end the tax breaks for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. But let me perfectly clear, because I know you’ll hear the same old claims that rolling back these tax breaks means a massive tax increase on the American people: if your family earns less than $250,000 a year, you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime. In fact, the recovery plan provides a tax cut — that’s right, a tax cut — for 95% of working families. And these checks are on the way.”

To this extent, Obama was taking the offensive, knocking down arguments before they’re even made.

It was an implicit acknowledgement of the ways in which the political discourse can stray from the factual path. The president had the bully pulpit, and he was determined to use it to set the record straight — before it got corrupted by those less interested in “honest debate.”