Going into last night’s high-stakes State of the Union Address, the political world was wondering how President Obama would respond to a series of political setbacks that culminated with Republican Scott Brown’s surprise victory in last week’s Massachusetts Senate race.
Would he move to the center or try to rally his liberal base? Would he retreat from comprehensive health care legislation or dig in his heels? Would his tone be feisty or conciliatory?
As is often the case with Obama, the answer turned out to be: all of the above.
In a flatly-delivered, 70-minute speech, Obama made several nods to conservatives by talking tax and spending cuts, while at the same time refusing to abandon the liberal agenda items he outlined last year.
When it came to the economy, Obama endorsed many conservative criticisms of his policies. “[T]he true engine of job creation in this country will always be America's businesses,” he declared. He called for earmark reform. And in an affront to Keynesians who argue that deficit spending is necessary to boost an ailing economy, he said, “families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.”
Yet he continued to talk up government spending as a means to spur economic growth, and called for a second stimulus bill.
Obama urged the Senate to follow the lead of the House and pass legislation aimed at limiting carbon emissions, but only after calling for building nuclear power plants and increasing offshore oil drilling.
While he spent most of his first year in office pushing health care legislation as his top domestic priority, in last night’s speech it was relegated to second-class status. Still important, yes, and still worth fighting for -- but one priority amid a laundry list of goals that typically make up State of the Union speeches.
It took him nearly a half hour to raise the issue, and he glossed over it quickly, only dedicating roughly 7 percent of the speech to the topic, based on the word count of his prepared remarks. One could interpret his actual comments on health care either as defiant or defeatist.
On the one hand, he gave hope to liberals who were worried he was eager to abandon the issue after Brown’s win threw a monkey wrench into Democrats’ plans to pass legislation. Speaking of those struggling with the current health care system, Obama said, “I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber.” He later added, “Do not walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people.”
Yet at the same time, he acknowledged that “this is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became” and suggested that there may need to be time to let “temperatures cool” before people take another look at the legislation. He also claimed that he was still open to new ideas from those in “either party.”
The idea of restoring bipartisanship was part of a broader theme of his speech, and he proposed monthly meetings with Republicans. But he pinned most of the blame for the polarized climate on Republicans, lashing out at them for abusing the filibuster. He said that “if the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well.”
While Obama’s speech may poll well initially, as is always the case with Obama, the reality will soon undermine his rhetoric.
He can’t claim to be a tax cutter while pushing for a national energy tax, promoting a health care bill that hikes taxes on the middle class through the individual mandate, and allowing for a massive tax increase when the Bush tax cuts expire. He can’t tout his economic policies if job losses continue to mount and unemployment remains higher than he promised when he sold Americans on the stimulus bill.
It’s easy to talk a big game about deficit reduction during the State of the Union Address, as presidents often do, but it’s another thing to actually make difficult choices and take action to limit spending. And stories will continue to emerge that will contradict his promises of fiscal restraint. Just this week, for instance, the Congressional Budget Office revealed that the economic stimulus bill would cost $75 billion more than initially projected, and that the federal deficit would be $1.35 trillion in 2010.
When it comes to health care, Obama will either exert pressure on reluctant Democrats to get the bill across the finish line, or he’ll recognize the difficulty of doing so and let the initiative wither and die. If he chooses to push ahead, the most talked about option among Democrats right now is for the House to pass the Senate bill, while making changes in a separate bill using the reconciliation process that requires just 51 votes in the Senate. This would mean that after telling the nation that he wanted to work together with Republicans and integrate their ideas, the response would be to cut Republicans out of the process entirely and ram the bill through in the most partisan way possible.
In his annual speech to Congress, Obama was able to choose all of the above. But during the year, he’ll actually have to make decisions, and Americans will continue to judge him based on the results.