In State of the Union, Obama takes on partisan dysfunction of Washington
President Obama used his first State of the Union address to reset his relationship with the American middle class. But it was the politics of Washington, rather than any specific policy, that the president spoke about with the most passion after a year when the change he pledged proved elusive.
His goal was to connect the disparate elements of his legislative agenda, which have come across to much of America as overly ambitious and chaotic in the hands of a recalcitrant Congress, into a coherent agenda focused on the economic plight of the middle class. He has attempted to clarify his ambitions before, but never at such a politically treacherous moment for his administration and party.
Obama resurrected the language of his campaign to criticize Washington's partisan dysfunction. His emphasis on the partisanship that he said defines Washington rather than his setbacks struck a populist tone for what could be a volatile midterm election year for his party.
Standing before the packed House chamber, Obama warned lawmakers, many of whom will face election in the fall, that "we face more than a deficit of dollars right now. We face a deficit of trust." He said the public's anger was rooted in "deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works," and he called for less partisanship and more action to "give people the government they deserve."
Obama spoke a year and a week after his inaugural address, when he told the assembled crowd on the Mall that "the question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works." Recent polls have shown that a growing majority of Americans believe it does not, and Obama has suffered politically from that disaffection.
When Obama addressed a joint session of Congress in February, his approval rating stood at a towering 68 percent. Today almost half the country disapproves of the job he is doing after a year of high unemployment rates, falling home values and a bailout for the biggest firms on Wall Street. "For these Americans and so many others, change has not come fast enough," Obama acknowledged. "They are tired of the partisanship and the shouting and the pettiness. They know we can't afford it. Not now."
As in his previous attempts, Obama largely succeeded Wednesday in laying out the logic and urgency of his agenda, even though he acknowledged that Republicans would probably always prefer a different approach to the country's furthest-reaching problems.
But the political lift he has achieved from such big thematic speeches has been overshadowed by partisan sniping, which he suggested is more appealing to restless national media. He identified himself with the growing number of Americans who have been disillusioned by "politicians [who] tear each other down instead of lifting this country up" and the "TV pundits [who] reduce serious debates into silly arguments."
The speech marked the first time before a national audience that Obama has tried out the more populist message he has adopted since the bracing Democratic loss this month of the Massachusetts Senate seat long held by Edward M. Kennedy -- a turn of events that he said Wednesday is a sign "that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual."
Despite that, Obama said, "we still need to govern," and he made clear that his chart for navigating the rough political year ahead will focus at the policy level on job creation and fiscal responsibility. Polls have shown that those two sometimes conflicting goals are preoccupying an increasing number of Americans.
The balance he attempted to strike typifies the challenge of governing at a time of enormous public demand for government assistance and rising concern over its reach and fiscal discipline. Those concerns are particularly strong among the independent voters who have abandoned the president and his party since the 2008 election.
Laced throughout the policy prescriptions, though, was Obama's sharp critique of Washington's political culture and Wall Street's irresponsibility that worked so well for him as a candidate.
Obama's supporters on the left have demanded more fight from the president, who often defaults to a cool public persona in times of crisis and political challenge, and he showed some pugnacious flashes in the prime-time address.
"If there's one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans, and everybody in between, it's that we all hated the bank bailout," Obama said to hearty applause. "I hated it. You hated it."
He called for using $30 billion from the Wall Street bank bailout to encourage community banks to step up small business lending. He emphasized the importance of fees on banks that accepted federal rescue money and of financial reform after a year when "too big to fail" became a political epithet employed by the right and the left.
Although his approval numbers have dipped over the past year, Obama is still far more popular than Congress, particularly the Democratic majority that failed to pass a health-care initiative before losing its filibuster-proof majority in the Senate with the Massachusetts loss. He warned his party Wednesday that "we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills."
The fate of his domestic agenda and of his party in the November elections depends on the Democratic leadership acting on health-care legislation, a jobs bill, cap-and-trade legislation and a mix of the kind of modest measures favored by Clinton to help middle-class families afford child care, save for retirement and pay to care for elderly parents.
But Republicans will now be able to block legislation in the Senate, and Obama pointedly warned the emboldened opposition that "the responsibility to govern is now yours as well."
"Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics," he said, "but it's not leadership."
On health care, in particular, he directed his new populist edge at Congress. Reminding those sitting before him of the stakes, Obama said, "By the time I'm finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance."
"I will not walk away from these Americans," he said to applause. "And neither should the people in this chamber."