There were lots of messages in Obama’s lengthy SOTU speech, but several stood out on first reading/hearing.
First, in a speech in which the President warned against making every day a partisan election shot, Obama delivered a highly political speech aimed directly at the Republican’s greatest vulnerabilities — and they knew it. For example:
— He launched a tough condemnation of Republicans’ partisan obstruction, without ever mentioning the Republicans by name or the unprincipled obstructionists in his own party who seized control of and tarnished the health reform bill. The Republicans were forced to sit silent while he lectured them for being irresponsible.
He made sure Americans understood that the Recovery Act was the stimulus bill, and it was responsible for whatever progress the country had made in economic recovery; the hidden message was, only two of you Republicans voted for an economic Recovery Act.
— He lamented the massive deficits, but calmly, carefully explained that most of it was handed to him by Bush and past Congresses who utterly failed to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy, two wars and a Medicare drug entitlement; another large piece was dictated by his having to rescue the economy they screwed up. “All that was there before I walked in the door.”
— He pointed out how many tax cuts he and the Democratic Congress passed last year, bringing standing cheers from the Democrats while the Republicans say glumly on their hands.
— He then told the Republicans that because of their fiscal irresponsibility in turning budget surpluses into large deficits, he would have to let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire. They were children who needed their allowance taken away.
— He told Americans he hated the bank bailouts but reminded them they came from the previous Administration.
— He reminded Republicans that his Administration had recovered much of the TARP money authorized by the last Administration, and explained how his proposed “fee” on the largest banks would recover the rest. Sorta. When he said that since we saved the banks and they were now handing out massive bonuses, they could afford to pay a “modest fee” to pay back the taxpayers. Again Democrats cheered and Republicans sat silent; that picture will cost them in November.
A second major message was that the country could not afford to back off the major pieces of his agenda, but it was delivered by reminding the Senate that while the House had passed at least four of the major elements — health reform, financial reform, climate change, and a new jobs and state assistance bill, three of those were still languishing in the Senate. He didn’t call the Senate dysfunctional, but the message was clear. You could see Nancy Pelosi’s face light up every time he complimented the House and reminded the Senate it had work to do. It must have been an uncomfortable night for Harry Reid.
My FDL friends will have more to say on the President’s message on health reform. It was ambiguous, but I thought the core message was straightforward: This is important, the people are counting on this, there are too many horror stories from insurance abuses to stop reform when we’ve come this far; we’re closer to getting this done than ever. So figure out a way to do this and get it done.
That’s not the same as sayin, “it’s good enough; just pass it.” I think the encouragement to get together and find a way to get it done should strengthen the hand of those pushing to improve the bill sufficiently, via reconcilation, to make it acceptable to both houses.
A third message was he wants folks focused on creating jobs, but for all the emphasis on the economy, the speech was striking for how little it offered in news jobs programs or funding. He mentioned taking $30 billion returned from TARP to fund one program, and he proposed business investment and employment tax credits that may get a few Republican votes but do relatively little to reduce the unemployment rate below the the 9-10 percent project for the next two years. It was a serious disconnect papered over by spending a lot of words on the topic. The message was further muddied by the confusion over a “freeze.”
A final message is that this President is not going to acknowledge his own leadership failures. You’d never know that recent weeks have been dominated by concerns about his credibility, his agenda, his commitment and his toughness.
He ignored all of that and challenged Congress to keep working on the people’s business, because that’s what the people want and what the country needs. It also happens to be what might save this Administration from itself.