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Did Obama get his message across?

  • President Obama emphasized competitiveness in a 61-minute speech
  • Julian Zelizer: It was an attempt to summon JFK enthusiasm with scaled-down programs
  • Paul Begala said the speech wasn't visionary, but people prefer specifics to vision
  • Erick Erickson said the speech wrongly proposed a public role in private investment

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama delivered a 61-minute State of the Union address Tuesday with a new theme -- putting his emphasis on investing in making America's economy more competitive in a more challenging world.

"We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world," he said. Republicans, who took control of the House in the midterm elections, faulted the president for not focusing on cutting government spending to rein in deficits.

Analysts along the political spectrum gave varying assessments of Obama's speech:

Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University who writes regularly for

With the State of the Union address, President Obama has attempted to shift the conversation away from the economic recession and toward economic revitalization. The aim of his message is a call to arms to join in a bipartisan project to improve the competitive position of the nation through innovation and smart investment.

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Comparing this moment to the era of Sputnik (1957), when many Americans felt a sense of urgency to strengthen the nation so that it could defeat the Soviet Union, Obama tried to sound like John F. Kennedy by conveying a similar sense of purpose. Beyond the call to join this common goal, however, the speech was not as clear when it comes to prescription.

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Much of the rest of his address focused on bipartisanship and civility, as well as the need to reduce federal spending and reorganize government.

While there were some important policy proposals in the speech, such as education reform and clean energy, his list did not exactly add up to another Interstate Highway Act (1956), National Defense Education Act (1958) and National Aeronautics and Space Act (1958).

The funds he seeks for his programs, moreover, depend on Congress taking steps that will greatly anger powerful interest groups, such as eliminating tax breaks for corporations. These are hard to accomplish.

The aim of his message is a call to arms to join in a bipartisan project to improve the competitive position of the nation...
--Julian E. Zelizer

In short, tonight the nation saw a president seeking to reclaim the ambitions of 1950s and 1960s liberalism within the limited resources that exist in contemporary politics -- in the Age of Ronald Reagan.

Paul Begala, CNN contributor and Democratic strategist:

President Obama was plain-spoken, not professorial. He was specific, not airy-fairy. He was patriotic and positive and practical.

Interesting: President Obama's reference to this being our "Sputnik moment" did not draw any applause, even though it had been hyped in advance. But when he called for more investment in clean energy, he got hearty applause.

People want specifics, and President Obama is giving it to them. This is not a time for abstractions and distant analogies; it's a time for specifics. This is a very specific speech. The professorial types looking for a "visionary speech" won't like it, but I think the American people will love it.

People want specifics, and President Obama is giving it to them. This is not a time for abstractions...
--Paul Begala

Boehner's eyes were filled with tears as President Obama saluted him. That's understandable, as Boehner's story is uniquely American: he came from poverty to sit as Speaker. That and the fact that he cries when he pours his Cheerios.

Ruben Navarrette Jr., syndicated columnist and contributor:

The president said: "Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows."

A passing reference to immigration. I'm glad it was in there, but this is a complicated issue not suited to sound bites -- or one paragraph in a 6,000-word speech. Obama has to convince his own party to stop thwarting reform to please organized labor.

President Obama's best line: "That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight. That dream is why a working class kid from Scranton can stand behind me. That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father's Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth." What a great line, and a wonderful tribute to a magnificent country. On that point, there is unanimity. Nice job, Mr. President.

No matter what Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) said, those dueling Republican responses were a form of competition. The Tea Party and the Republican Party are now going mano a mano for the prize: Republican voters. Hey, Republicans are supposed to like competition, right -- in schools, trade, etc. Now they've got a dose of it up close and personal. And it's all laying the groundwork for the big battle: the 2012 presidential race.

Erick Erickson, CNN contributor and editor

For all the talk about Republicans wanting to move the nation back to '50s morality, the president signaled he wants to move us back to '50s style corporatism with large projects between the public and private sector. That time has passed however.

In fact, for all the appreciation of America's uniqueness, the public-private partnership era was an anomaly.

Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates...did not wait on or depend on government help.
--Erick Erickson
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Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates -- and the list goes on and on -- did not wait on or depend on government help.

The Sputnik line was overdone. At the time, we were facing an enemy bent on our destruction.

We beat them to the moon and proved our strength. Who is Barack Obama's enemy now? More troubling, why are solar panels the needed response?

But there is good news for the president. History shows that this speech will be forgotten sometime tomorrow afternoon.

Some voices around the web:

Jennifer Rubin, at The Washington Post:

He made a gesture toward a DREAM Act-like plan when he said it was a shame to let illegal immigrants go to college and then return home, but he offered no specifics. There was another promise to tackle comprehensive immigration reform, a promise that he failed to keep when Democrats controlled the House. It was a check-the-box moment for Hispanic voters.

Jonathan Cohn, at The New Republic:

What would it mean to freeze discretionary spending for five years? ...Overall, discretionary spending isn't a huge chunk of federal spending; it's about a sixth of the budget, depending on how you count...If funding in 2015 is the same as it is now, those programs won't be able to provide the same level of services (since those services will usually cost more, thanks to inflation) or serve the same number of people (since there will usually be more people dependent on the programs, due to population growth). ...

Of course, there are some programs that really deserve cutting. And Obama's cuts would surely be less severe than what the Republicans have in mind. They want to reduce spending to what it was in 2008. But is Obama's proposal the end of the conversation--or the beginning? Has he just set the upper limit on spending? And, if so, isn't this another case of the Obama administration compromising with itself?

Megan McArdle, at The Atlantic:

While watching the speech, I tweeted that "Obama sounds remarkably similar to the CEOs I used to listen to on earnings calls: the ones with mediocre EPS and a failing business model."....

It's not that Obama doesn't know how to fix the problems; I think that like most people in Washington, he understands the broad parameters within which the fixes will be carried out. But he can't make Congress do it before there's an actual crisis. And saying all of this is all too likely to trigger the crisis--a crisis he'd much rather would happen during someone else's presidency. So he tells us what we want to hear: that we need to find a way to fix Social Security without, y'know, changing it in any way. And will you look at those green jobs! I think we're going to have a bumper crop!

The opinions expressed in these commentaries are solely those of the authors.

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