Posted on 28 Jan 2010
By now, President Obama can hardly be under any illusions about the depth of the partisan divide as he seeks to reboot his presidency. Yet he still seemed surprised on Wednesday night when he could not get Republicans to applaud tax cuts.
As he boasted in his first State of the Union address that his economic program had cut taxes for 95 percent of working families, Democrats jumped to their feet to cheer. Republicans sat quietly. President Obama paused as he glanced over to their side of the House chamber. “I thought I’d get some applause on that one,” he said.
If President Obama thought he could take the rostrum in the House chamber and restore his image as the change agent who came to Washington to end the politics of division, he received another reminder just how hard that will be. President Obama tried to recapture the magic of his yes-we-can campaign after a season of no-we-can’t governing, but conceded little if any ground to critics on either the right or the left.
It was a confident performance, more defiant than contrite, more conversational than soaring. He appealed to and scolded both parties, threatened vetoes, blamed his predecessor and poked fun at lawmakers. The agenda was largely the same, dressed up in fresh packaging, as he offered point-by-point rebuttals to the litany of critiques he hears with increasing frequency. He acknowledged only a failure to explain his policies without retreating an inch on the policies themselves. His main message: “I don’t quit.”
In the wake of last week’s Republican victory in the special election for a Massachusetts Senate seat, President Obama had to tackle head-on the disappointment that has dragged down his poll numbers. He pleaded for patience and understanding. “I campaigned on the promise of change; ‘change we can believe in,’ the slogan went,” he said toward the end of the address. “And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren’t sure if they still believe we can change — or that I can deliver it.
“But, remember this,” he went on. “I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone. Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That’s just how it is.”
After a year of learning just how it is, President Obama adopted again the mantle of reformer he wore the first time he addressed Congress as president a year ago. He even used the same phrase, “deficit of trust,” to describe his diagnosis, and he proposed some of the same medicine in the form of cracking down on lobbyists and special-interest spending.
But he is not in the same place he was a year ago and he gave little indication how he would change the dynamics that have frustrated much of his agenda so far. After all, when he addressed Congress last year, his strategists were developing a big-bang plan to move ahead on multiple fronts.
By the end of his first year in office, they had expected to have overhauled the health care system, enacted a market-based cap on carbon emissions blamed for climate change, imposed a new regulatory system on financial institutions, closed the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and signed a new arms control treaty with Russia. None of those have happened, and while some of the proposals quite plausibly still could, President Obama left unclear his strategy for getting there.
Instead, he expressed the frustration common in the White House these days: that he has not gotten more credit for the successes he has had, particularly in pulling the economy back from the brink of a new Great Depression.
That was where the tax cuts came in. While the economic stimulus package President Obama pushed through Congress last year is known largely for its spending, he pointed out that it also included a variety of tax cuts, and then repeated it in case anyone missed it. The Republicans who chose not to applaud have argued that the tax cuts were simply accompanied by too much spending.
In fact, when it comes to his program, the narrative of too much was the major notion President Obama was trying to dispel. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, the newly inaugurated Republican leader in Virginia, emphasized the point in his official response to the president’s speech. “Today, the federal government is simply trying to do too much,” Mr. McDonnell said.
In the face of that judgment, shared not just by Republicans these days, Presient Obama could have pulled back but chose to push forward. To those who said his ideas have been too ambitious, he said: “I have one simple question: How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold?”
The truth is, President Obama is still trying to figure that out for himself. Since the Massachusetts election cost the Democrats unilateral control of the Senate, the president and his advisers have been grappling for a plan to move forward on his agenda. Some things inevitably will have to wait, and Mr. Obama’s plans since last week have been a work in progress.
The day after last week’s election, he suggested returning to the “core elements” of health care, only to have aides hours later try to walk back the statement and insist he did not necessarily mean he wanted a scaled-back plan.
Even on Wednesday, the plans seemed fluid, literally changing even in the final hours, either in substance or in presentation. When aides previewed the speech for reporters in midafternoon, they said President Obama’s plan to spur lending to small businesses would draw $25 billion from repaid bailout loans. By the time he spoke in the House chamber six hours later, the amount had increased to $30 billion.
Such differences might have meant little to viewers trying to gauge whether the Presdient Obama they were watching was the same Mr. Obama they voted for. “I never thought the mere fact of my election would usher in peace, harmony and some post-partisan era,” he said.
On that, pretty much everyone could agree.