WASHINGTON — Declaring “I don’t quit,”’ President Barack Obama fought to recharge his embattled presidency with a State of the Union vow to get jobless millions back to work and to stand on the side of Americans angry at Wall Street greed and Washington bickering. Defiant despite stinging setbacks, he said he would fight on for ambitious overhauls of health care, energy and education.
“Change has not come fast enough,” Obama acknowledged Wednesday night before a politician-packed House chamber and a TV audience of millions. “As hard as it may be, as uncomfortable and contentious as the debates may be, it’s time to get serious about fixing the problems that are hampering our growth.”
Obama looked to change the conversation from how his presidency is stalling — over the messy health care debate, a limping economy and the missteps that led to Christmas Day’s barely averted terrorist disaster — to how he is seizing the reins. He spoke to a nation gloomy over double-digit unemployment and federal deficits soaring to a record $1.4 trillion, and to fellow Democrats dispirited about the fallen standing of a president they hoped would carry them through this fall’s midterm elections.
With State of the Union messages traditionally delivered at the end of January, Obama had one of the presidency’s biggest platforms just a week after Republicans scored an upset takeover of a Senate seat in Massachusetts, prompting hand-wringing over his leadership. With the turnover erasing Democrats’ S
enate supermajority needed to pass most legislation, it also put a cloud over health care and the rest of Obama’s agenda.
A chief demand was for lawmakers to press forward with his prized health care overhaul, which is in severe danger in Congress. “Do not walk away from reform,” he implored. “Not now. Not when we are so close.”
Republicans applauded the president when he entered the chamber, and even craned their necks and welcomed Michelle Obama when she took her seat. But the warm feelings of bipartisanship disappeared early.
Democrats jumped to their feet and roared when Obama said he wanted to impose a new fee on banks, while Republicans sat stone-faced. Democrats stood and applauded when Obama mentioned the economic stimulus package passed last February. Republicans just stared.
On national security, Obama proclaimed some success, saying that “far more” al-Qaida terrorists were killed under his watch last year in the U.S.-led global fight than in 2008.
Hoping to salve growing disappointment in a key constituency, Obama said he would work with Congress “this year” to repeal the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. But in a concession to concern about the move among Republicans and on his own party’s right flank, Obama neither made a commitment to suspend the practice in the interim nor issued a firm deadline for action.
The president devoted about two-thirds of his speech to the economic worries foremost on Americans’ minds as recession persists. “The devastation remains,” he said.
Obama emphasized his ideas, some new but mostly old and explained anew, for restoring job growth, taming budget deficits and changing a Washington so polarized that “every day is Election Day.” These concerns are at the roots of voter emotions that once drove supporters to Obama but now are turning on him as he governs.
Declaring that “I know the anxieties” of Americans’ struggling to pay the bills while big banks get bailouts and bonuses, Obama prodded Congress to enact a second stimulus package “without delay,” specifying it should contain a range of measures to help small businesses and funding for infrastructure projects. Also, fine tuning a plan first announced in October, Obama said he will initiate a $30 billion program to provide money to community banks at low rates, provided they agree to increase lending to small businesses. The money would come from balances left in the $700 billion Wall Street rescue fund — a program “about as popular as a root canal” that Obama made of point of saying “I hated.”
Acknowledging frustration at the government’s habit of spending more than it has, he said he would veto any bills that do not adhere to his demand for a three-year freeze on some domestic spending (while proposing a 6.2 percent, or $4 billion, increase in the popular arena of education). He announced a new, though nonbinding bipartisan deficit-reduction task force (while supporting a debt-financed jobs bill). And he said he would cut $20 billion on inefficient programs in next year’s budget and “go through the budget line by line” to find more.
Positioning himself as a fighter for the regular guy and a different kind of leader, he urged Congress to require lobbyists to disclose all contacts with lawmakers or members of his administration and to blunt the impact of last week’s Supreme Court decision allowing corporations greater flexibility in supporting or opposing candidates.
“We face a deficit of trust,” the president said.
Even before Obama spoke, some of the new proposals, many revealed by the White House in advance, were dismissed — on the right or the left — as poorly targeted or too modest to make a difference. And one of Obama’s economic point men, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, was verbally pummeled by Democrats and Republicans alike over his role in the $180 billion bailout of insurance giant AIG Inc., a venting of the public’s anger about Wall Street.
In the Republican response to Obama’s speech, Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia showed no sign of his party capitulating to the president.
In fact, the choice of McDonnell to represent Republicans was symbolic, meant to showcase recent GOP election victories by him and others. McDonnell reflected the anti-big government sentiment that helped lead to their wins, saying, “What government should not do is pile on more taxation, regulation, and litigation that kill jobs and hurt the middle class.”
In his speech, Obama hoped to rekindle the energy of his historic election. Though aides worked up until the last minute to whittle it down, it still ran to an hour and nine minutes, with applause, longer than any State of the Union since the Clinton era and surely taxed viewers’ patience.
Obama acknowledged “my share of the blame” for not adequately explaining his plans to the public and connecting with their everyday worries. At the same time, he offered an unapologetic defense of pursuing the same agenda on which he won.
He said that includes the health care overhaul, as well as an aggressive approach to global warming (though without a plug for the controversial cap-and-trade system for emissions that he favors), sweeping changes to address the nation’s millions of illegal immigrants, “serious” reform of how Wall Street is regulated and children are educated.
Obama called on lawmakers to resist the temptation to substitute a smaller-bore health care solution for his far-reaching ideas, but he didn’t say how. He simply said, “As temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we’ve proposed.”
In a remarkable shift from past addresses, and notable for a president whose candidacy first caught fire over Iraq war opposition, foreign policy took a relative back seat.
It came behind the economy and was largely devoid of new policy. And Obama made no mention of three of the toughest challenges he faced in his first year: failing to close the terrorist prison compound at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, failing to get Israel and the Palestinians to resume peace negotiations, and struggling with the al-Qaida havens in Pakistan that are at the core of the terrorist threat to America.
The president is keeping to the tradition of taking his themes on the road. He will travel to Florida on Thursday to announce $8 billion in grants for high-speed rail development, to Maryland on Friday to a House Republican retreat, and to New Hampshire Tuesday to talks jobs. Cabinet officials were fanning out too.