Given all the articles and talk all Tuesday about the “skeptical,” “cold,” and “hostile” reception that awaited the president as he spoke before the Congress tonight, and given all the rejoicing in the media that President Bush entered SOTU with “the lowest presidential approval ratings since Richard Nixon,” I was deeply surprised by the president’s delivery, deliberate pace, low-key but very strong and conservative arguments, and his poise.
The speech was far less poetic than some of the great ones he has given. But it made up in plain speaking, firmness, and directness about certain matters of fact, and certain clearly stated policies, for what it lacked in poetry. I was stunned by the number of times he forced the Democrats not only to applaud, but even to get to their feet, whether with fake enthusiasm or grudgingly — even on key matters regarding the war on terror and Iraq, but also on health care and energy concerns that the Democrats prematurely regard as their strongest turf. The Democrats were forced neither to hiss nor to boo, but to listen with far greater warmth than all day long the media were predicting.
In some ways, this speech may have been the most clearly argued tour de force of the president’s two terms thus far. He changed the subject to domestic matters for longer, and more convincingly, than I had thought possible beforehand. He gave the best brief summary of the war on terror, and its downward flow in 2006 as opposed to 2005, than he has yet given.
Not a brilliant, coruscating speech, but one he felt very comfortable and serene in giving, and delivered with restrained forcefulness. He seemed to me, his back against the wall, more confident and determined, in a comfortable way, than I have yet seen him.
Most of the comments on television in the hour after the speech, I judged, failed to give the address the solid credit it deserved. Bush did not speak like a defeated man, nor even like an unpopular man, and certainly not like an intimidated man — but like a man strangely confident that he was eventually going to be seen to have been clear-sighted and brave, the more so when the winds blew against him.
I also liked the geniality and good humor he showed, before, during and after. And also the fact that he was more composed in his facial muscles than ever before — none of the little grimaces, winks, tics that he has sometimes allowed himself in the past.