Bobby Jindal was supposed to be the GOP’s response to Barack Obama in more ways than one. But the Louisiana governor’s highly anticipated rebuttal to the president’s congressional address Tuesday, raised more questions than it answered.
The choice of Jindal for the high-profile role was further evidence, to some, that despite his own strenuous denials, the Republican Party is grooming him for a run against Obama in 2012. But the very uneven nature of his performance seemed to seriously diminish that possibility. Instead of serving as the prime-time unveiling of a bright new political superstar, Jindal’s speech left him decidedly overshadowed.
Maybe it was nerves, or maybe he intentionally reined himself in knowing what he was up against. Either way, there was no hint of the dynamic young politician who first piqued the media’s interest when he became the nation’s youngest governor in 2007, and who later was touted as the GOP’s Obama.
At a time when the GOP is trying to present itself as a party of change—and when Americans are desperate enough to ignore party affiliation—the GOP response to the Obama speech was a chance to crack things wide open; they missed it. To be fair, having the first Indian-American governor respond to a congressional address by the first African-American president does reflect a dramatic level of change on the surface. But in the current political climate, that is not enough. Jindal could have overcome his disadvantages with a better speech that laid out some specifics on how his party would tackle the current economic and financial crises differently than Obama and the Democrats. He didn’t.
Perhaps part of the problem was that Jindal approached the rebuttal like a high-school debate. He delivered a point-by-point response to the president’s and the Democratic Party’s agenda. That made it difficult for Jindal to present his own ideas on his own terms. In the end, the choice seemed like a stunt centered around identity politics. On politics, on biography, on public-speaking, Bobby Jindal pitted himself against Barack Obama—and he just didn’t cut it.
It seems clear that what the GOP was hoping for was a transformative political moment similar to Barack Obama’s keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
Instead, we heard a lot of familiar themes—political parties working together, solutions to problems lying with citizens rather than the government, tax cuts, the disaster known as George W. Bush and the greatness of our country despite the mess we’re in right now. All politicians have to deliver those lines, but Jindal lacked clarity and offered no alternatives to Obama’s stimulus plan. That is something he must correct if he is to have any future on the national stage.
Jindal also must be careful about comparisons with another famous politician—Rudy Giuliani, who tried to ride to national prominence on the strength of his handling a high-profile national disaster. Among the governor’s strengths is that he is a capable administrator who revitalized Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He was wise to talk about this in his address, but he has to make sure that he avoids the same pitfalls Giuliani encountered when he designed his entire presidential campaign around his 9/11 fame.
Ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, Jindal lacked the kind of personal charisma that rocketed Obama to political stardom. That’s not to say he doesn’t have it—and we certainly shouldn’t count him out for 2012. If anything, last night was likely a test run to help Jindal and the GOP gauge his strengths and weaknesses and retool his appeals to the voters.
If the GOP is serious about Jindal as a potential presidential candidate, he should take cues from the president: He will need to re-introduce himself to the American people in a warmer way than he did last night.
“As I grew up, my mom and dad taught me the values that attracted them to this country—and they instilled in me an immigrant's wonder at the greatness of America,” he said. “As a child, I remember going to the grocery store with my dad. Growing up in India, he had seen extreme poverty. And as we walked through the aisles, looking at the endless variety on the shelves, he would tell me: 'Bobby, Americans can do anything.' I still believe that to this day.”
Yes we can. But first, we’ve got a lot of work to do on our delivery.
Shiwani Srivastava is a Seattle-based freelance writer covering South Asian American cultural trends and community issues.