Say what you will about Barack Obama.
But don't accuse the president of veering from the course he charted at
a point when his term was new, his popularity ratings were high and
Americans took seriously all that talk of "hope" and "change."
Despite the battering he has taken during his first year in the
White House, despite suffering a serious drop in his personal approval
ratings, despite the frustration and disenchantment that gave the
Senate seat from the deep blue state of Massachusetts to the opposition
Republicans, Obama used his initial State of the Union address to renew the call for the health care reform initiative that was the primary focus of his difficult first year in office.
"Don't walk away from reform -- not now, not when we are so close," the president pleaded with the Congress.
"By the time I'm finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have
lost their health insurance. Millions will lose it this year. Our
deficit will grow. Premiums will go up. Co-pays will go up. Patients
will be denied the care they need. Small business owners will continue
to drop coverage altogether," he declared, in the signature line of his
speech. "I will not walk away from these Americans. And neither should
the people in this chamber."
The president admitted that he bumbled the push for health reform,
even drawing warm laughter when he said: "I did not choose to tackle
this issue to get some legislative victory under my belt. And by now it
should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it
was good politics. But remember this - I never suggested that change
would be easy, or that I can do it alone."
He also acknowledged that his first year in office was a tough one:
"I campaigned on the promise of change - change we can believe in, the
slogan went. And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren't
sure if they still believe we can change - or at least, that I can
Yet, Obama still did not seem to "get" the politics of the moment.
Speaking at a point when the year-long effort to enact fundamental
health-care reforms has stumbled badly -- in the face of united
Republican opposition, wrangling between House and Senate Democrats and
unfocused messaging from the president -- Obama made a renewed effort
to find the common ground that has eluded almost everyone in
Remarkably, the president clung to the hope for bipartisanship that
was dashed at every turn in 2009 -- either with outright rejection by
the "party of 'no'" or, worse yet, via compromises that handed ultimate
authority over policy-making to Republican senators who diverted
stimulus funding from job creation to tax cuts for the rich and
Democrat-In-Name-Only Ben Nelson and Republican-In-Everything-But-Name
Joe Lieberman, who forced the Senate to scrap the public option that
was needed to challenge the grip of health insurance companies.
"We face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people
hope what they deserve -- is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans,
to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our
politics," said the president, whose repeated references to
bipartisanship made clear that he is not ready to adopt the fighting
stance that might rally the Democratic base for a serious fight to use
the party's majorities in the House and Senate to initiate meaningful
This was not a rally-the-base speech.
It was a speech that, at many turns, sounded as if it was written a
year ago -- before Obama saw his domestic agenda blocked at so many
It was this tone-deaf quality that made Obama's speech a less-than-inspired statement.
Even when Obama outlined what sounded like an activist agenda, he
generally restated 2008 campaign promises that were not kept during his
first year as president.
* To suggest a commitment to job creation, he dusted off one of his
presidential campaign's less-impressive position papers on using tax
cuts to get small businesses hiring. In particular, the president
called for eliminating capital-gains taxes on investments in small
businesses and for giving small employers a tax credit for new hires.
* He repeated old promises to create clean-energy jobs and to end aid to businesses that are off-shoring jobs and facilities.
* Even as said "we all hated the bank bailout" ("it's about as
popular as a root canal"), Obama defended the giveaway to big banks as
a necessary, even courageous, move. And he only offered up a little of
the populism that should have defined the speech, with a proposal to
recover bailout bucks by placing a fee on the biggest banks. "I know
Wall Street isn't keen on this idea," he declared, "but if these firms
can afford to hand out big bonuses again, they can afford a modest fee
to pay back the taxpayers who rescued them in their time of need."
* He announced, "It's time to get serious about financial reform." But the details were missing.
* He called for the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell"
policy, which discriminates against openly gay and lesbian people who
want to serve in the military by requiring their discharge if they tell
fellow service members about their sexuality. But he still left the
issue to Congress, eschewing calls for him to act as commander-in-chief
and simply issue an executive order.
Obama seemed throughout the speech to be struggling to balance an
understanding of the need for activist government -- especially in the
struggle to reduce a brutal double-digit unemployment rate -- with a
political calculation that he must mouth empty rhetoric about cutting
taxes, capping spending and fretting about deficits. (Obama made his
call for a freeze on domestic spending but drew giggles from all sides when he said it would not be implemented until next year.)
The result was an address that, at too many turns, seemed either tepid
or numbingly predictable -- and that at other turns was just plain
wrong ("we need a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants.")
The president still hasn't figured out that bragging about the success
of last year's stimulus bill cannot trump the fact that unemployment is
two percentage points higher than was promised at the time the measure
was enacted. He doesn't seem to recognize that his own party has
abandoned the cap-and-trade initiatives he mentioned ever so briefly
Wednesday night. And his "I'm for free trade, er, no, I'm for fair
trade, er, no, free trade, er, no fair trade" line was so deliberately
vapid as to be insulting.
So it was that the highlight of the speech was not the renewed call for health-care reform or the new talk of economic renewal.
It was his cry for real reform of our politics, even in the face of
the Supreme Court's decision, in the case of Citizens United v. FEC, to
let corporations buy elections.
"(It's) time to put strict limits on the contributions that
lobbyists give to candidates for federal office. Last week, the Supreme
Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special
interests -- including foreign companies -- to spend without limit in
our elections," Obama told the Congress. "Well I don't think American
elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests,
and worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American
people, and that's why I'm urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a
bill that helps to right this wrong."
The president's message on campaign reform was right.
But it should have been more muscular, more central to the overall statement.
The president should have made the Supreme Court's lawless decision
the focus of his speech -- as part of a broader riff on what's wrong
with Washington. But he didn't go for it.
And that's the bottom line. In his first State of the Union address, the president should have gone for it. But he pulled a few too many punches, sounded a little too many old themes and fell a little too short of the mark.
This was not a bad speech. Obama can't really give a bad speech.
But nor was it a game-changing address. Rather, it was the statement
of a man who is not quite ready to abandon the goals or the
preconceived notions with which he began his presidency. If consistency
is a virtue, then this was a virtuous speech. But if consistency has
its risks, especially in the face of changing circumstances, then this
was a very risky speech.
Instead of rallying the base, President Obama chose to preach the
gospel of bipartisanship. Instead of offering America a bold new
agenda, or at least an edgier style, the president chose to recall old
themes. Instead of accepting that the approaches of 2009 did not work,
the president signaled that they will be repeated in 2010.