At any rate, the most important thing to remember about these speeches, apart from their relatively small importance, is that they're one of the easiest things that a president does. Obama has world-class speechwriters (not just whatever is on staff, but you can send out for anyone and everyone who ever wrote a speech for the party and its candidates). He has automatic applause from the live audience. He has the setting working for him. He gets to seed the gallery with sympathetic characters. Even the opposition party response, which is traditionally and invariably horrible, works for the president (I skipped this one, but they're all terrible). Almost all presidential addresses are smash hits, because they just aren't very hard.
So it was going to be good, and it wasn't going to matter very much. I'm sure both of those things turned out to be true.
So much for the Meaning and Importance of Obama's health care speech. On to the critique and comments...
I don't think he's mastered the form at all, yet. The best, I think, was Bill Clinton; he had an informality, an interplay with the Members of Congress, that worked real well. Reagan was good at it, although with a completely different style, of course; he played up the temple-of-democracy aspects of it, at his best. Obama didn't really play to either of those aspects. He didn't follow the standard format of pausing through the applause; instead, he tries to build on it, the way he would at a campaign rally, but it doesn't really work. Obama's at his best when he's given space to soar, but the frequent (and frequently partisan) applause don't really give him room to do that. His best presentation only kicked in at the end, with the Kennedy stuff and his (rather defensive, but I think mostly effective) argument for liberalism. I don't think he's nearly as effective on the policy details...of course, unlike W. or Reagan, he knows his brief, but he's unable to make policy details sing, the way Bill Clinton could.
He included quite a few partisan digs (I think I counted three or four that were clear, but not explicit, partisan shots; I expect that quite a few people watching on TV missed them entirely). He included a lot of far more explicit bipartisan rhetoric; part of the game is still to pretend that cooperation is possible, the better to make it clear that it's all the Republicans fault if there's a Democrats (+ Maine) only bill.
I loved the heckling. Good theater. Terrible politics for the GOP, although of course great politics for Rep. Joe Wilson, who is going to be on all the talk radio and cable news he wants for the next seventy-two hours.
I'll end with what I said when the speech was announced, and we'll see if it plays out this way:
Here's how Obama's speech will go: he'll likely get good reviews for it, because most presidential addresses to Congress get good reviews. Conservatives will blast it, perhaps on substance, but more likely they'll bring the crazy -- and whatever the crazy is will fill up Fox News for a couple of days, and denunciations of the crazy will fill up Maddow and Olbermann for a few days. Out in the country, Democrats will like the speech and Obama will likely recover some of the (fairly small) ground he's lost with them in the approval polls, at least for a while; Republicans won't watch, and if they do they won't like what they see. True independents and soft Republicans and Democrats will also likely move a bit towards the president for a short time. And then the next set of events will intervene, and the effects of the speech, which were never much to begin with, will dissipate.