Obama’s Meager Pitch Meets a Brick Wall

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the Boston Globe

Obama’s Meager Pitch Meets a Brick Wall

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S State of the Union address was a reminder of why so many Americans invested so much hope in this man - and why he often makes us want to scream. There it all was again - the sheer decency, the intelligence, the plea for an appreciation of complexity, the call to higher purpose combined with feeble particulars, and the signature pursuit of impossible common ground.

"What the American people hope,'' he said, "what they deserve - is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences, to overcome the numbing weight of our politics.''

But this just isn't in the cards, no matter how much the president wishes it. The Republican response to his high-mindedness was the same tactic the GOP has been successfully deploying all year: total obstruction.

Obama made a strategic mistake in framing the problem as "the numbing weight of our politics,'' as if the problem were "politics'' in general. It isn't. The problem is a president with one set of remedies to a dire economy downturn, and Republicans who simply won't play, even when he meets them more than halfway.

Vermont's independent senator Bernie Sanders put it well. "In order to dance, you need a dance partner, and there ain't no dance partner out there.''

When Obama boasted of all the tax cuts he had delivered - the preferred Republican remedy for everything - there were cheers from the Democratic side of the aisle, while Republicans sat in stony silence. "I thought I'd get some applause on that one,'' he teased, looking over at the Republican seats.

Despite his conciliatory gestures, Republicans oppose his jobs plan, they oppose his bipartisan commission to reduce the deficit (a conservative favorite); they may even reject his plan to shift $30 billion in repaid bank-bailout funds to help small business.

And that's only half the problem. With unemployment at 10 percent and still rising, Obama's proposals are too meager to make much of a dent. "The House has passed a jobs bill,'' he said. "I urge the Senate to do the same . . . I want a jobs bill on my desk without delay.''

What Obama didn't say was that the $154 billion jobs bill had squeaked through the House, 218-214, on the initiative of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with no help from him or his staff; or that the Senate counterpart is in the range of just $80 billion. The economic drag from cuts in state and local government outlay will more than offset the stimulus of this skimpy new federal spending - which will be resisted by Republicans whether it is $8,000 or $800 billion just because it is Obama's.

The speech also had bold and compassionate words for the economic frustrations of parents juggling work and family, young adults saddled with college loans, and elderly people and their caregivers. But the actual program he proposed was a medley of small-bore tax credits that will neither deliver much help nor alter the deeper economic forces at work.

The gap between the call for sweeping change and what he is actually proposing, much less delivering, does serious harm to Obama. The Republicans get this even if he doesn't.

Given the wall-to-wall opposition, he might as well propose medicine strong enough to do the job. And might as well call out the Republicans for their sheer obstruction. On both counts, he'd win some respect for nerve and leadership.

This president is embattled. He should sound embattled. But instead, he is doubling down on the same strategy that has failed him - sweet reasonableness. His call for the Republicans to help him salvage some shred of health reform sounded almost like a pitiful plea. "Don't walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close.''

One Nebraska voter spoke for disillusioned Obama fans everywhere in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. "You listen to the sales pitch,'' said 30-year-old Kevin Fischer, "and you're so excited, and then it arrives and you open the box and it just crumbles . . .''

Coming barely a week after the shock of the Massachusetts US Senate election, this speech was billed as evidence that Obama had heard the wake-up call. If he is to save the economy and his presidency, Obama must do better.

Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, as well as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the think tank Demos. He was a longtime columnist for Business Week, and continues to write columns in the Boston Globe and Huffington Post. He is the author of A Presidency in Peril: The Inside Story of Obama's Promise, Wall Street's Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future, Obama's Challenge, and other books.

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