President Obama faced a hard challenge with his State of the Union address to Congress of yesterday evening, given his recent series of political setbacks. That his speech came off well nonetheless is not just the conclusion picked by post-speech polling, but also one shared by observers from the French press, despite the discourse’s inevitable emphasis on domestic affairs. (This US-focus did not stop the French on-line papers from uniformly offering embedded videos of the entire speech, some even dubbed into French, so their readers could take a look at it themselves.)
Noteworthy reaction flowed promptly in two articles from that pillar of the French journalistic establishment, Le Monde. One of them (Obama’s words: work, economy, and Americans; no byline) literally offers at its head a “word-cloud” of the speech’s most-frequent terms (actually, their French equivalents) and then, by way of analysis, a hyper-short summary of his essential message: “Don’t panic.” Yes, it’s true that the president’s emphasis was much more on the economy and creating jobs, rather than on that health care reform legislation that still sits tantalizingly close to final passage. But what was of far more interest to Le Monde’s writer here was those foreign policy topics to which Obama gave short shrift, as he only briefly discussed Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, skimmed China, Russia, Germany, India, the Koreas, and said nothing at all about Pakistan or the Israeli-Palestinian peace-process! (Nor about France, come to think of it.)
A companion Le Monde article (Obama like in the first days; also no explicit byline) notes how surprisingly sprightly Obama appeared before the assembled Congress (“with a rediscovered insolence and combativeness”), just like in the old days, oh so long ago, when he was eating John McCain’s lunch on the campaign trail. This writer also issues a fitting, if cynical summary of the president’s economic message: focus on jobs this year (an election year); focus on reducing the deficit only the year after that.
For its part, the conservative paper Le Figaro contributes a lengthy review of Obama’s SOTU speech from its Washington correspondent, Laure Mandeville (Employment, Obama’s priority for 2010). I’m pretty sure “Laure” is a French woman’s name, for Ms. Mandeville not only mentions Barack’s feistiness (“more resolute and offensive than ever”) but also gets in a reference to Michelle’s couture (she was wearing a jupe bouffant violine – some sort of fancy skirt). At the same time, she captures well the lecturing, lightly-scolding tone prevalent especially in his speech’s second half, and directed largely at the Republican opposition, reflecting his greater theme of “we [i.e. the country] just can’t go on like this!”
Bonus: The judgment on Obama’s SOTU speech is also out from the foremost Danish expert on American affairs, Prof. Niels Bjerre-Poulsen of the Copenhagen Business School (as reported by Ritzau, so it’s pretty much the representative Danish journalistic view; actually published in this instance in the opinion newspaper Information). With this excellent speech, opines the good professor, Obama once again showed his strong side to the nation: that is, in speech-making, in this case in a tight situation and with many contradictory points to make. But the resulting goodwill will only last so long, and it takes much different political skills to translate such fancy words into concrete results. We still have to see if the president is similarly gifted with those latter.