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Did Obama's Jobs Speech Seize The 'Big Moment'?

President Obama mingled with guests and lawmakers after his speech to a joint session of Congress on Thursday at the Capitol.
Charles Dharapak
President Obama mingled with guests and lawmakers after his speech to a joint session of Congress on Thursday at the Capitol.

President Obama's jobs speech on Thursday had been characterized in the wide world of punditry as his "Moment of Truth." His "Last Chance." His "Big Speech." His ... well, you get the picture.

There was a lot riding on the president's address to a joint session of Congress, in which he laid out an expansive and expensive — nearly $450 billion — plan to "jolt" the nation's anemic employment market.

To gauge Obama's performance in a speech pivotal to his efforts to win re-election next year, we turned to a couple of political media consultants for their takes.

Republican consultant Vinny Minchillo of Dallas-based Scott Howell & Company and Democratic consultant J.J. Balaban of Philadelphia-based Campaign Group shared their thoughts shortly after the president ended his remarks — and in plenty of time for everyone to settle in and watch the NFL season opener.

Vinny Minchillo

Minchillo has worked on campaigns including those for South Dakota Sen. John Thune, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, Bush-Cheney '04, and a slew of corporate clients.

When asked if anything about the president's speech surprised him, Minchillo said this: "I'd forgotten how good he is at it." (The "it" being campaigning.)

Obama delivered not so much a presidential address, he said, but "a brilliant piece of campaign theater."

Why brilliant?

"This is the first salvo in the 2012 campaign," Minchillo said. "And right before our very eyes he conjured a fully-formed bad guy: Congress.

"And what every successful political campaign needs is a bad guy" he said.

In 2008, candidate Obama had outgoing President Bush and his political guru, Karl Rove, co-starring in the bad-guy roles. But Thursday's speech marked the end.

"They've ridden the Bush-Rove horse as far as they can ride it," Minchillo said of the White House.

Minchillo said Congress won't approve the president's $450 billion jobs proposal, despite Obama's repeated "pass it right away" exhortation.

"The jobs plan has plenty of stuff in it both parties like, and plenty of stuff both parties don't like," Minchillo said. "It has everything in there, short of a cure for bad breath and something that will make you look younger."

He characterized it as a "bear trap that Republicans won't have any choice but to put their foot in."

"The plan is unpassable. So for the next 14 months, the president can point to Congress and say, 'See, we told you they were the bad guys,' " Minchillo said.

Obama has now set the table for the 2012 campaign, he said, but "the question is can he sell this story to enough people in enough places."

J.J. Balaban

Balaban has created TV and radio ads for scores of gubernatorial and congressional campaigns across the country, including for first-term Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, the Democrat who defeated Republican Christine O'Donnell of "I am not a witch" ad fame.

Obama has "had enormous trouble, so from a visual perspective, the speech before Congress lent him credibility and authority," Balaban said.

And the president's message, he added, was one that would "get a lot of heads nodding, unless you're a Republican."

Balaban said the president was laying out proposals that had been tested, not just to get Democrats' heads nodding, but to appeal to the independent voters he'll need to win next fall.

"It was inherently more of a campaign speech than some of his others, and clearly designed as part of his campaign," he said.

One of the issues the president and his team face is concern that people have tuned him out, Balaban said, and their hope is to get some segment of the electorate saying, "Oh, here's a choice — I hadn't heard him say that before."

Proposing the jobs package and repeatedly urging Congress to pass it is a set-up, but "not in a slimy way," Balaban noted.

"Either it passes and has some effect on the economy, or it doesn't pass and he can say it didn't pass and here's why," Balaban said. "The challenge that he's had in his presidency is that by any neutral standard, the causes of the economic crisis preceded his presidency.

"But now he owns the economy, and he can't do anything in Congress because of the filibuster," Balaban says, "But 95 percent of the public don't really know what that means, and their eyes glaze over."

He sees the president as attempting to set up a situation that voters can understand by trying to spur congressional action on the economy, or at least make voters understand that he wanted action "but these other people prevented it."

But Balaban sounded a cautionary note.

"We have a habit of seeing presidents as Superman," he said. "The president has to show action, that he's doing something, that he's effective and not just pointing the finger at Congress."

Still, Balaban rated it a good night for Obama, a night when the president may have played the only card he has but at least got in the game – a better strategy, he said, than passivity.

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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