In style and substance, Jindal’s speech panned

Published 1:31 am Thursday, February 26, 2009

Insane. Childish. Disaster.

And those were some of the kinder comments from political pundits about Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and his response to President Barack Obama’s speech to Congress on Tuesday night.

Jindal, 37, a Rhodes scholar and son of Indian immigrants, is considered a rising star in Republican ranks and a likely 2012 presidential candidate. GOP leaders, looking for a fresh face for the party’s image, tapped Jindal earlier this month for the high-profile task of rebutting Obama’s first address to a joint session of Congress.

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In both style and substance, Jindal’s speech has drawn flak from Republicans and Democrats alike.

His criticism of government spending for emergency economic relief has been widely panned, especially given his state’s receipt of billions in federal assistance after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Jindal’s voice and earnest, awkward delivery have drawn comparisons to Kenneth Parcell, the geeky page on the NBC comedy “30 Rock.”

Indeed, a new Facebook group titled “Bobby Jindal is Kenneth the Page” had already attracted more than 1,800 members Wednesday afternoon.

Republicans had high hopes for Jindal after his appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where he delivered a forceful, concise critique of Obama’s $787 billion stimulus plan and explained his decision to reject some of the money allotted for his state. He also impressed observers when he spoke to reporters after a meeting with Obama and other governors at the White House Monday.

Jindal spoke from the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge, and critics pounced on his remarks almost immediately, panning everything from his overly folksy demeanor to his complaint that Obama’s plan to revive the economy was “irresponsible.”

David Brooks, a conservative New York Times columnist who has criticized aspects of the stimulus plan, nonetheless called Jindal’s arguments “insane” and tone-deaf given the dire economic challenges the country faces.

“To come up in this moment in history with a stale, ‘Government is the problem, you can’t trust the federal government’ is just a disaster for the Republican Party,” Brooks said on PBS’ “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.” “It’s not where the country is, it’s not where the future of the country is.”

Fox News commentator Juan Williams focused on Jindal’s delivery.

“It came off as amateurish, and even the tempo in which he spoke was singsongy,” Williams said, adding that the content of the speech was “very simplistic and almost childish.”

Penni Pier, a political communication specialist at Iowa’s Wartburg College, said Jindal’s presentation was overly colloquial and his message of less government and more tax cuts was substantively thin.

“It sounded like the same old rhetoric — we had tax cuts the last eight years, and look where it got us,” Pier said. “Jindal was also trying to be so familiar, he lost credibility. Obama is familiar, but at the same time always a statesman.”

To be sure, Jindal had a tough act to follow in Obama, a naturally gifted orator whose argument for vast federal intervention to stem the nation’s economic crisis was widely praised. A CNN poll taken after his speech found 92 percent of viewers had a positive reaction to it.

Rush Limbaugh, arguably the nation’s most prominent conservative voice, defended Jindal on his radio show Wednesday while acknowledging that “stylistically,” Obama had outshined Jindal.

“The people on our side are making a real mistake if they go after Bobby Jindal,” Limbaugh said. “We cannot shun politicians who speak for our beliefs just because we don’t like the way he says it.”

Jindal was headed to Disney World Wednesday with his family for a vacation. His chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, said his boss had prepared carefully for the speech and that his message was strong.

“It’s a challenge for anybody to follow Obama. The guy is one of the most gifted speakers of our generation,” Teepell said. “Bobby’s his own harshest critic. He’s always looking for ways to improve.”