Reality Check: Obama Gropes for a Strategy

President's State of the Union speech shows laws of political gravity apply to him after all

By John F. Harris
|  Thursday, Jan 28, 2010  |  Updated 9:00 AM PDT
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Reality Check: Obama Gropes for a Strategy

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President Barack Obama delivered a speech of downsized ambitions for a downsized moment in his presidency.

President Barack Obama Wednesday night delivered a speech of downsized ambitions for a downsized moment in his presidency.

His State of the Union was presented to the Congress and a national audience with all of Obama’s usual fluency and brio. There were flashes of wit, as when he noted ruefully that “by now, it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics.”

And there were flashes of defiance, with Obama delivering what the White House clearly intended to be the headline quote: “We don’t quit; I don’t quit.”

But there was simply no mistaking throughout the 69-minutes of a box-checking, loosely themed address how different the political context in the winter of 2010 is from the winter of 2009.

Obama came into office promising to shatter expectations of what was possible in Washington. The talk then was of a presidential “big bang”—health care, global warming, and financial reform legislation all in one year—and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel boasted that his motto was to “never let a serious crisis go to waste.”

With the big-bang strategy officially a failure, Obama’s speech revealed in real-time a president groping for a new and more effective one. The speech was woven with frequent acknowledgements that the laws of political gravity applied to him after all.

The first and most pressing legislative goal he identified was a comparatively small jobs bill that has passed the House but is languishing in the Senate and a Bill Clinton-style menu of tax incentives for business.

Health care, the consuming issue of 2009 and the one on which Obama aides insisted they should be judged, did not show up until more than halfway through.

Even then, it was on a notably defensive note. He acknowledged of his signature domestic proposal that “the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became,” adding that, “I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people.” Despite a year of presidential speeches and legislative maneuvering, he said, many people are asking themselves, “What’s in it for me?”

Legislators should pass what he called good policy even if it is bad politics, he asserted. But Obama offered no clarity at all on exactly when or how this would happen following the stalemate caused by the Republican capture of Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat in Massachusetts.

His tepid rallying cry: “As temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we've proposed.”

That line fit the theme of the night. This president was in a political jam when the evening started. And it was hard to see how he was in any less of a jam when the evening ended.

In many ways his tone was befitting the speech’s substance. There were only a few of the rhetorical acrobatics and lyrical flights that mark Obama’s most cultivated speeches. Instead, the language was more straightforward, more informal, more accessible—the words of a realist rather than a romantic.

But if the speech reflected his cramped circumstances, it probably did nothing to alter those circumstances.

The president and his aides have been awash in advice for the past few weeks, and it was if they decided to serve up a buffet of all of it.

For those who thought he needed to take a step to the right and show more outreach to Republicans, there were calls for the parties to transcend “pettiness” and “work through our differences,” and proposals to cut capital gains taxes for small business, and promote off-shore oil and gas exploration, and nuclear power. He bragged about how he had cut taxes for most families and talked up a spending freeze.

For those who thought he needed to show he was listening to the liberals who were most excited about the original promise of his presidency, there was his vow to act on his campaign promise of ending discrimination against gays in the military. He promised that he would move ahead with energy legislation—which includes the politically volatile “cap and trade” provisions to limit carbon emissions—though he did not try to rebut the widespread analysis that there is virtually no chance these will pass the Senate this year. 

For those who thought he needed to sound a populist note, telling big bankers where to get off, he did just that. He promoted a proposed new fee on banks and crowed, “I know Wall Street isn't keen on this idea, 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.”

For those who thought Obama needed to be more modest and contrite, he delivered just that -- saying he “deserved” some of his “political setbacks.” Same for those who thought he should be less detached and project a more human connection to the lives of real people. There were references to the letters from average Americans he reads nightly and to the struggles of Allentown, Pa., and Elyria, Ohio, and Galesburg, Ill.

In a favorable light, the speech may have revealed the mind of a president who has never cared much about traditional ideological categories and is determined to create his own results-oriented composite of ideas from across the spectrum.

Less charitably, the address could be interpreted as the work of a president who is desperately improvising by touching every political erogenous zone he and his advisers can think of.

It was overwhelmingly a domestic policy address. Although the president was absorbed for months in 2009 with his review of policy in Afghanistan, where 100,000 U.S. troops now serve, the war there was dealt with in two paragraphs.

Iraq also came at the end, with a reference that was brief but resounding about his long-term goal: “But make no mistake: This war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home.”

A speech with parts to satisfy so many different constituencies and perspectives could not fully satisfy very many people. This was reflected in the early reaction.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) criticized the president for continuing to express willingness to work with Republicans, arguing that Obama should have been more forceful about calling the Republicans out for obstruction.

"The fact is, we have an opposition determined to bring him down," McDermott said. "I don't know when he's going to get the message. ...They're not going to help him at all. Watch. I've been doing this a long time."

On the other hand, Rep. Joe Wilson—the South Carolina Republican who gained notoriety last year by shouting “you lie” during an earlier Obama speech to Congress—was staying positive.

“On the issue of national security, I was pleased that the president reiterated the value of sending 30,000 more reinforcements to Afghanistan," Wilson said. "I very much respect the president’s decision to listen to our commanders on the ground . . . .”

Another conservative was much less complimentary. On POLITICO’s Arena feature, the Heritage Foundation’s Rory Cooper complained that the speech “seemed to have dozens of authors as it contradicted itself and his policies often and emphatically.

“He said he didn't want to re-litigate the past, when the primary focus of the address was exactly that,” Cooper said. “He said he didn't want to penalize bankers, right after he gloriously announced his punitive tax on bankers who have paid back the U.S. Treasury in full with interest. He said he wanted to control spending, and then rattled off a laundry list of liberal investments.”

Also on the Arena, Obama got an assist from Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the 2004 Democratic nominee, who said his work with Republican Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and independent Joe Lieberman (Conn.) shows that progress on energy legislation is realistic this year.

“The inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom that this issue has stalled is dead wrong,” Kerry said.

Obama knows his challenge is to get other Democrats to share Kerry’s optimism, not just on energy legislation but on the larger promise of the administration. “To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills,” Obama said.

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