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