Washington Matters


Obama Pivots to Economy
But Won't Give Up on Health

Richard Sammon

Republicans react angrily to what they say was a campaign speech.



President Obama tried to turn a corner last night, pivoting from a broad agenda to one focused on jobs without giving up on the rest. In his first official State of the Union address, he also tried to assure Americans he knows how bad the economy is, while voicing the kind of optimism about the future that was the hallmark of Ronald Reagan’s success. Obama’s 70-minute speech touched on almost every issue and was more political than most, which only undercut his plea for bipartisanship.

The president began by acknowledging the grim economic realities and the political setbacks that he and his party have suffered, pledging a full focus in his second year on economic recovery and creating jobs. He demanded a jobs bill quickly and said he wouldn’t rest until there’s significant progress on the jobless rate, now at 10%.

While he insisted he wasn’t a quitter and would keep fighting for all of his priorities, it was clear from the tone and structure of the speech that the large original ambitions that marked the opening of his presidency a year ago were being scaled back and that even modest progress in many areas will remain difficult.

Health care was the prime example. He waited until the last half of his speech to even mention it, and while he demanded that Democrats not give up the fight, he offered no plan for overcoming what now look like insurmountable hurdles.

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The scaled-back ambitions in the speech were a recognition of the reality that has replaced the euphoria Democrats felt a year ago. That’s certainly fair enough, given the sharp partisan divide in Congress and the longer odds Obama faces on so many legislative fronts. “I never suggested change would be easy,” he said. “Or that I could do it alone.” That admission served as the keystone of the speech introducing his second-year agenda.

Obama also focused on the deficit, blaming former President Bush for much of it while promising a serious attempt to adjust it – but not until next year. He pledged to submit an austere budget and vowed to use his veto authority to keep domestic spending essentially frozen. He gave only short mention to a climate-change energy bill that has little chance of passing this year. There was no laundry list of legislative wishes that are often so common to State of the Union addresses.

The president also sought to rekindle the dampened spirits of Democratic colleagues, and he put Republicans on notice that they, too, are accountable for gridlock and inaction as election year political fever sets in.

“But we still need to govern,” he said in a lecturing tone to the joint session. “To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 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.”

Republicans reacted angrily, suggesting his words will make bipartisan cooperation more difficult and less likely. In morning-after talk show appearances, they accused the president of making a campaign speech and of misrepresenting their positions.

They did praise Obama, in a backhanded way, for keeping the thrust of his address where it was needed most -- on economic recovery. “This is a welcome change of focus after the president and his administration spent nearly a year pursuing a partisan health care plan,” said Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), combined support and criticism in a single sentence.

Democrats will soon act on a jobs package, and some Republican support is anticipated. Members in both parties expressed backing for Obama's plan to use $30 billion in money repaid from bailed out banks for smaller community banks to help small business. There was also a fair measure of bipartisan support to move financial regulatory reforms this year. His call for tax cuts for small businesses was also welcomed, though Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), in a radio interview, said Obama should have pushed that a year ago.

Republicans will provide only modest support for the president. “What we see is a president with a much lower set of goals and some new religion on the economy,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC). “How can he lecture us about what he’s failed to see and address earlier?”




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