The state of our union

Our view: President Obama's speech probably won't change minds in Washington unless it heralds a change in his approach to winning support for his agenda

January 29, 2010

There must be a hidden footnote in the section of the Constitution that requires the president to report to Congress from time to time mandating that this address include the phrase, "The state of our union is strong." President Obama got around to it eventually last night, in spite of the fact that most Americans would probably choose some other word if asked to fill in the blank at the end of that sentence. What would be the consensus national pick? Cranky? Anxious? Fed-up? Gridlocked? Unemployed?

Perhaps understandably, under the circumstances, President Obama used his speech last night less to describe the state of the union than to try to put it in context. As sluggish as the economy is now, as outrageous as it is that bankers are getting millions in bonuses while unemployment is still at decades long highs, as terrifying as the debt the nation is amassing is for the future, it's important not to forget that just a year ago, it seemed entirely possible that the nation was about to fall off a cliff. Republicans are complaining today that the president did little more than blame his predecessor, but it is more than fair in assessing the state of our union today to note just how much worse things were a year ago - and how terrible they might have been if not for the actions taken both by President Bush and President Obama to stabilize the markets and inject money into the economy.

Mr. Obama's speech contained fewer new initiatives than many. Rather, the president spent much of his time on the fractious politics that have gripped Washington. In the most pointed passage of the speech, he admonished his fellow Democrats to remember that they have a large majority in Congress and should not run for the hills and chided Republicans that if they are going to insist that it must take 60 votes in the Senate to accomplish anything, they need to do more than say no.

Will that move a single vote in Congress? Almost certainly not. But it should, because of two other bits of context the president provided:

1. China, Germany and India are not dickering about how to respond to the obstacles their economies face and are rapidly positioning themselves for growth in the years ahead. If we don't do the same, we will fall behind.

2. The only answers Republicans have suggested for turning the country around are more tax cuts and less regulation. We tried that for eight years, President Obama said. It didn't work. It led to mountains of debt, anemic job and wage growth, a housing bubble that destroyed the real estate market and financial speculation that nearly brought down the entire global economy. If Republicans think the mood of unrest is a call to return the nation to state of affairs circa fall 2008, they are mistaken.

Where do we go from here? Rather than scaling back his ambitions, President Obama indicated that he's sticking to his guns on financial regulation, health care reform and climate change legislation - and throwing in an end to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy while he's at it. Given the skittishness of congressional Democrats and the Republicans' ability after their victory in a special election in Massachusetts to sustain a filibuster in the Senate, does the president have the slightest chance of succeeding? Not if he goes about it the same way he tried to pass health care reform last year. Rather than seeking to build a coalition in the public and bring it to Congress, the president sought to build a coalition in the Senate and bring it to the public. Is it any wonder that his effort stalled with both?

President Obama needs a new approach. The public understands that the nation faces grave challenges, and people are willing to accept change if they believe it represents the best ideas for solving our problems instead of more Washignton insider-dealing. President Obama's fellow Democrats control Congress, but he cannot let congressional Democrats control him. He needs to act independently, to veto bad legislation, to get the best ideas from around the country and bring them to Washington. If he does that, he might sound a little more convincing next year when he declares the state of our union to be strong.

Readers respond
Obama is trying to do too much too fast. I didn't vote for him, but I had hoped that he would make the changes he spoke about. Instead, we got the same old stuff, just a different day.

Francis

Regardless of the president's assurances, he and his Democratic cronies are still hell-bent on passing a healthcare bill that is still despicable.

Guy Wyse


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