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State of the Union: Why Is Obama Still Clinging to Bipartisanship?

Obama restated 2008 campaign promises that were not kept during his first year as president. It's unclear how he can make good on them in 2010 working with Republicans.
 
 
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Say what you will about Barack Obama.

But don't accuse the president of veering from the course he charted at a point when his term was new, his popularity ratings were high and Americans took seriously all that talk of "hope" and "change."

Despite the battering he has taken during his first year in the White House, despite suffering a serious drop in his personal approval ratings, despite the frustration and disenchantment that gave the Senate seat from the deep blue state of Massachusetts to the opposition Republicans, Obama used his initial State of the Union address to renew the call for the health care reform initiative that was the primary focus of his difficult first year in office.

"Don't walk away from reform -- not now, not when we are so close," the president pleaded with the Congress.

"By the time I'm finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance. Millions will lose it this year. Our deficit will grow. Premiums will go up. Co-pays will go up. Patients will be denied the care they need. Small business owners will continue to drop coverage altogether," he declared, in the signature line of his speech. "I will not walk away from these Americans. And neither should the people in this chamber."

The president admitted that he bumbled the push for health reform, even drawing warm laughter when he said: "I did not choose to tackle this issue to get some legislative victory under my belt. And by now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics. But remember this-- I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone."

He also acknowledged that his first year in office was a tough one: "I campaigned on the promise of change -- change we can believe in, the slogan went. And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change -- or at least, that I can deliver it."

Yet, Obama still did not seem to "get" the politics of the moment.

Speaking at a point when the year-long effort to enact fundamental health-care reforms has stumbled badly -- in the face of united Republican opposition, wrangling between House and Senate Democrats and unfocused messaging from the president -- Obama made a renewed effort to find the common ground that has eluded almost everyone in Washington.

Remarkably, the president clung to the hope for bipartisanship that was dashed at every turn in 2009 -- either with outright rejection by the "party of 'no'" or, worse yet, via compromises that handed ultimate authority over policy-making to Republican senators who diverted stimulus funding from job creation to tax cuts for the rich and Democrat-In-Name-Only Ben Nelson and Republican-In-Everything-But-Name Joe Lieberman, who forced the Senate to scrap the public option that was needed to challenge the grip of health insurance companies.

"We face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope what they deserve -- is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics," said the president, whose repeated references to bipartisanship made clear that he is not ready to adopt the fighting stance that might rally the Democratic base for a serious fight to use the party's majorities in the House and Senate to initiate meaningful reforms.

This was not a rally-the-base speech.

It was a speech that, at many turns, sounded as if it was written a year ago -- before Obama saw his domestic agenda blocked at so many turns.

It was this tone-deaf quality that made Obama's speech a less-than-inspired statement.

Even when Obama outlined what sounded like an activist agenda, he generally restated 2008 campaign promises that were not kept during his first year as president.

In particular:

* To suggest a commitment to job creation, he dusted off one of his presidential campaign's less-impressive position papers on using tax cuts to get small businesses hiring. In particular, the president called for eliminating capital-gains taxes on investments in small businesses and for giving small employers a tax credit for new hires.

* He repeated old promises to create clean-energy jobs and to end aid to businesses that are off-shoring jobs and facilities.

* Even as said "we all hated the bank bailout" ("it's about as popular as a root canal"), Obama defended the giveaway to big banks as a necessary, even courageous, move. And he only offered up a little of the populism that should have defined the speech, with a proposal to recover bailout bucks by placing a fee on the biggest banks. "I know Wall Street isn't keen on this idea," he declared, "but if these firms can afford to hand out big bonuses again, they can afford a modest fee to pay back the taxpayers who rescued them in their time of need."

* He announced, "It's time to get serious about financial reform." But the details were missing.

* He called for the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which discriminates against openly gay and lesbian people who want to serve in the military by requiring their discharge if they tell fellow service members about their sexuality. But he still left the issue to Congress, eschewing calls for him to act as commander-in-chief and simply issue an executive order.

Obama seemed throughout the speech to be struggling to balance an understanding of the need for activist government -- especially in the struggle to reduce a brutal double-digit unemployment rate -- with a political calculation that he must mouth empty rhetoric about cutting taxes, capping spending and fretting about deficits. (Obama made his call for a freeze on domestic spending but drew giggles from all sides when he said it would not be implemented until next year.)

The result was an address that, at too many turns, seemed either tepid or numbingly predictable -- and that at other turns was just plain wrong ("we need a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants.") The president still hasn't figured out that bragging about the success of last year's stimulus bill cannot trump the fact that unemployment is two percentage points higher than was promised at the time the measure was enacted. He doesn't seem to recognize that his own party has abandoned the cap-and-trade initiatives he mentioned ever so briefly Wednesday night. And his "I'm for free trade, er, no, I'm for fair trade, er, no, free trade, er, no fair trade" line was so deliberately vapid as to be insulting.

So it was that the highlight of the speech was not the renewed call for health-care reform or the new talk of economic renewal.

It was his cry for real reform of our politics, even in the face of the Supreme Court's decision, in the case of Citizens United v. FEC, to let corporations buy elections.

"(It's) time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to candidates for federal office. Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign companies –- to spend without limit in our elections," Obama told the Congress. "Well I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that's why I'm urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong."

The president's message on campaign reform was right.

But it should have been more muscular, more central to the overall statement.

The president should have made the Supreme Court's lawless decision the focus of his speech -- as part of a broader riff on what's wrong with Washington. But he didn't go for it.

And that's the bottom line. In his first State of the Union address, the president should have gone for it. But he pulled a few too many punches, sounded a little too many old themes and fell a little too short of the mark.

This was not a bad speech. Obama can't really give a bad speech.

But nor was it a game-changing address. Rather, it was the statement of a man who is not quite ready to abandon the goals or the preconceived notions with which he began his presidency. If consistency is a virtue, then this was a virtuous speech. But if consistency has its risks, especially in the face of changing circumstances, then this was a very risky speech.

Instead of rallying the base, President Obama chose to preach the gospel of bipartisanship. Instead of offering America a bold new agenda, or at least an edgier style, the president chose to recall old themes. Instead of accepting that the approaches of 2009 did not work, the president signaled that they will be repeated in 2010.

John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.
 
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