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48 million Americans tuned in, but did Obama -

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48 million Americans tuned in, but did Obama turn them on?

Eleanor Hall reported this story on Friday, January 29, 2010 12:45:00

ELEANOR HALL: The US President is now hitting the road with his Vice President to try to capitalise
on the publicity from his State of the Union address yesterday.

It was billed as a critical speech for Barack Obama. Opinion polls showed that he'd lost the
confidence of the majority of the US population.

But President Obama had 48 million Americans listening to him as he launched into a defence of his
agenda and took a swipe or two at his opponents and at Wall Street along the way.

James Fallows is a professor in US media at the United States Studies Centre at the University of
Sydney and a long time political correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly Magazine.

He spoke to me from Washington.

JAMES FALLOWS: I think this was a very important speech. And strangely or significantly it's one of
several in a row he's had, starting even two years ago when he had the famous controversy over the
radical Reverend Jeremiah Wright and had his famous speech about race relations in the US.

So this was yet another case where momentum seemed to be against him and he had to perform in a big
event.

And I think that the opinion so far almost 24 hours after the event is he seems to have succeeded
pretty well.

ELEANOR HALL: When Bill Clinton fashioned himself as the comeback kid after his midterm election
losses he scaled down his agenda.

Now President Obama took the opposite tack last night. Did that surprise you?

JAMES FALLOWS: It's worth recognising how different the circumstances are. So Bill Clinton was a
year further into his presidency and he suffered historic, catastrophic losses in the US House of
Representatives. So he really had some changing to do. And he had been beaten on his healthcare
initiative.

So Obama is still one year in. The elections are still the end of this year. And I think the
question was whether or not he would decide to go ahead or just concede at this point.

And so I was not certain but I expected that he would go in the direction he did.

ELEANOR HALL: Some critics though say his determination to keep pushing ahead with his agenda,
especially healthcare, suggests a dangerous arrogance. Is this a risky path politically?

JAMES FALLOWS: It's risky but the case he tried to make during the State of the Union speech was
one similar to what he had made now four or five months ago in an address to a Joint Session of
Congress, essentially saying this bill has its unpopular aspects. The Republicans are dead set
against it. But the alternative of not doing anything is not acceptable.

ELEANOR HALL: And of course there was a big focus on the economy. But there were some apparent
contradictions in the speech. He promises a three-year freeze on spending in an attempt to rein in
the budget deficit and yet he says his administration will focus on job creation. Can he do both?

JAMES FALLOWS: Well I think the contradictions are both part of politics and part of modern life.
So he did his manful best to explain why that contradiction existed.

His three-year proposal I think is recognised by everybody including himself as being the most
gimmicky part of what he was putting forward - gimmicky in the sense that it's a three-year freeze
but it excludes the great majority of Government spending.

Anything national security related is off the table. Social security, which is the main retirement
program for the US is not included. So most of where the money goes is not part of this freeze.

ELEANOR HALL: And what did you make of that very direct attack on the Supreme Court decision on
corporate funding of political campaigns?

JAMES FALLOWS: You know as a moment of drama it was really breathtaking. I've seen a lot of these
speeches over the years and I don't recall anything quite that dramatic because the scene is the
nine justices of the Supreme Court directly in front of the President's podium.

By custom they sit stone-faced. Since they're supposed to be impartial they don't rise up and
applaud like everybody else does.

And President Obama in the context of talking about the problem of lobby and corruption said that
this recent decision by a 5-4 majority overturning a century's worth of established law in the US,
he said this was going to increase the problem of corruption and lobbying including by foreign
corporations too.

There was rousing applause from Democrats and Republicans in the Chamber while the Supreme Court
sat there with the exception of Justice Alito, a Republican, who was sort of muttering and looking
rattled or disgruntled.

But it was, I thought that the President couched it in the one acceptable way which is saying
lobbying and corruption are problems. This ruling has made them worse problems. We need to find
ways to deal with it.

ELEANOR HALL: James Fallows, thanks very much for joining us.

JAMES FALLOWS: My pleasure, thank you.

ELEANOR HALL: That's James Fallows, a professor at the United States Studies Centre at the
University of Sydney. He's also a long time political correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly
Magazine.

And a longer version of that interview is available on our website.