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Obama to Democrats: Don't Run for the Hills

4 years ago
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The country was maybe expecting a chastened president? A chief executive bowed and ready to change course amid 10 percent unemployment, the devastating loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts, and the limbo status of his top priority -- health reform -- after a full year of work?

Nah.

"I Won't Back Down" is a Tom Petty song that you hear a lot on the presidential campaign trail. The House chamber doesn't have that rally-in-the-gym feel to it, but I couldn't get the song out of my head during President Obama's State of the Union address.

With polls showing the country split on his agenda, Obama decided to double down and have a good time doing it. He defended his economic record to the hilt, heaped accolades on the stimulus bill, threatened vetoes if Congress goes too easy on the financial sector, warned both parties not to "walk away" from health reform, and reaffirmed his support for a comprehensive energy and climate bill.

Everyone was on relatively good behavior. (Oops -- except for Justice Samuel Alito and commentator Chris Matthews). Republicans avoided "You lie"-type outbursts and TV shots of them checking their BlackBerries, but couldn't resist the occasional catcall. When they booed his description of the deficits he inherited from George W. Bush, Obama stared them down and said sternly, "Just stating the facts." But he also teased and taunted them throughout the evening, and challenged them to support his health care plan or come up with one of their own.

Obama made only an oblique reference to the Massachusetts Senate election that has given Republicans 41 votes and the ability to halt Senate business through filibusters. He turned what he called early "campaign fever" into a reproach to both parties. "We still have the largest majority in decades and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills," he told Democrats. He added, to boos from Republicans, "Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions."

The State of the Union and of the president appeared grim at the start of the speech. Obama recalled taking office "amid two wars, an economy rocked by severe recession, a financial system on the verge of collapse, and a government deeply in debt." One year later, he said, "the worst of the storm has passed. But the devastation remains." He talked of unemployment, anxiety, frustration and anger among Americans. "They are tired of the partisanship and the shouting and the pettiness," he said. They want Democrats and Republicans "to overcome the numbing weight of our politics" and get on with meeting challenges.

Why start the evening on such a down note? My guess is Obama was trying to convey to independent voters, blue-collar voters, and anyone who might leave the TV set after 10 minutes that he feels their economic pain and understands their disgust with Washington.

In his first address to Congress last February, Obama said that he would not "govern out of anger or yield to the politics of the moment." He did not turn into a born-again populist this year, despite speculation that he might or that he should. But he did take advantage of political opportunities that may serve Democrats well this fall.

For instance, Obama talked up his proposed fee to recover what banks and financial firms haven't paid back in bailout money. "Now 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," Obama said as Democrats stood and cheered.

The president also called out the Supreme Court -- with the justices sitting there -- for its decision to allow unlimited corporate spending in campaigns. "I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people," he said.

Health reform, now stuck between passage and final passage, is the only setback Obama acknowledged. "By now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics," he said with a small smile. He added that "I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people." I'd say he deserves a bit more blame than that -- for failing to convey urgency and play hardball when it mattered.

The State of the Union was hardball in a sense, making it clear that in Obama's view, the Massachusetts election was not a cataclysm and it would not push him off-course. Democrats in the chamber appeared energized by his recommitment to his signature priorities, and a new one that will energize a potent part of the base: his pledge to work with the military this year to end the Don't ask, Don't tell policy and let gay people serve openly.

There are some Democrats who didn't hear what they wanted to hear. Labor did not get a mention of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to organize unions. Proponents of immigration reform probably noticed that Obama talked about continuing the work of fixing the broken system -- with no call to get it done. And progressives heard a lot of Republican sounding economic proposals, including tax cuts and deficit reduction, but no proposal for a public jobs program to drive the unemployment rate down short-term.

It's also far from certain that Obama will be able to make health reform happen, or that he will be able to change negative public perceptions of the stimulus package.

All in all, though, the president and his speech and the mood of the evening were far more upbeat than what I anticipated after reading an afternoon tweet from Katie Couric. She had eaten lunch with Obama and reported him to "pensive, slightly deflated, realistic, aggravated and resolute." She added, "Didn't eat his pie."

More than anything, it was the "didn't eat his pie" part that threw me. But I recognized this guy, from his campaign and from his first year in office. He's still saying he believes change is hard but possible, and he still likes to tease his wife in public ("She gets embarrassed," he told millions of television viewers mid-speech after he praised her initiative to reduce childhood obesity). He is staying the course, for better or for worse.

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