Obama to America (and Congress): Yes, we still can

President Obama, in his State of the Union address Wednesday, showed little inclination to downscale his ambitious agenda and, strikingly, devoted a fair bit of his speech to the need to change the partisan tone in Washington.

Tim Sloan/Reuters
President Barack Obama delivers his first State of the Union address as Vice President Joe Biden (above l.) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi applaud on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday night.

Most presidents want to forget about the campaign promises that don’t exactly work out. And they certainly don’t make them a central feature of the State of the Union address.

Indeed, on Wednesday night President Obama did not mention the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, a symbol of the US approach to the war on terror that damaged America’s global image and which he had pledged to close by this month. At this point, no one knows when Guantánamo will close.

But strikingly, Mr. Obama did devote a significant portion of his first State of the Union speech to his campaign promise to launch a postpartisan era in Washington. That pledge crumbled as the new president, bolstered by large Democratic majorities in Congress and facing a recalcitrant Republican minority, sought to enact an ambitious agenda.

Let’s try again, Obama essentially said, amid his larger message that jobs and the economy are his top priority.

“I will not give up on trying to change the tone of our politics,” Obama said. “I know it's an election year. And after last week, it's clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual. But we still need to govern. “

Anyone who follows politics knows that “last week” referred to the upset election of a Republican to the Massachusetts Senate seat of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. Voters there said they wanted to send a “message” to Washington: We still want change.

In his speech Wednesday, Obama sought to reseize the change mantle, and pushed back on the notion that he was naïve to think he could change the way Washington works.

“Now, I'm not naïve,” he said. “I never thought that the mere fact of my election would usher in peace and harmony – (laughter) – and some postpartisan era.”

Obama blamed both parties for feeding divisions that are “deeply entrenched” and pointed out that philosophical differences represent the essence of democracy.

“But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day,” he continued. “We can't wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side – a belief that if you lose, I win.”

Obama promised to renew his efforts to reach out to Republicans, noting that this week he is addressing a meeting of the House Republicans. He suggested monthly meetings with the Democratic and Republican leadership.

“I know you can’t wait,” he said to laughter as he glanced at the Republican side of the House chamber.

Until last week’s Massachusetts shocker, Obama’s first State of the Union was to be a different affair. He expected to have finished comprehensive healthcare reform – if not signed, at least passed in its final version through both houses of Congress. Healthcare was to be the crowning achievement of Obama’s first year in office, and in the State of the Union address, he was going to start the selling process – explaining to a skeptical public what it would do for them.

The loss of the Massachusetts seat meant the loss of the Democrats’ 60-seat supermajority in the Senate, the number of votes needed to halt a filibuster.

So instead, a chastened Obama went before the joint session of Congress and the American people, and accepted blame. He acknowledged how the complexity of the reform had made Americans increasingly skeptical.

“I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people,” Obama said.

But he also chastised congressional Democrats for their behavior since the Jan. 19 election loss.

“To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills,” he said.

Then he turned to the Republicans with a similar scolding message: “Just saying no” is not leadership, he said.

Whether Obama’s cajoling can begin to move Washington beyond its partisan ways, even an inch, is open to debate. But with each passing day, as the clock ticks toward the November midterms, it will be increasingly difficult.

Obama has not given up on his ambitious agenda, but as the new political calculus settles in, that may change. In the meantime, he used fighting words to set the tone for his larger vision of a strong union: “I don’t quit.”


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