Obama Turns From ‘Hope’ to ‘Cope’
WASHINGTON - President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress a year ago was filled with a sense of soaring possibility. On Wednesday night, his State of the Union Address centered instead on hard times and tough choices.
The bold promises of last year - a determination to tackle not only a sour economy but also pass a health care overhaul, limits on greenhouse gas emissions and more - has given way to legislative stalls and the electoral jolt of this month's Republican upset in the Senate race in Massachusetts.
Now, Obama has narrowed his sights, put his focus squarely on the need to create jobs and added a freeze on domestic spending to reassure independent voters nervous about the billion-dollar bailouts of the past year.
In the high-stakes drama of a nationally televised address, he sought to reframe his presidency as he begins the second year of his tenure.
"I campaigned on the promise of change - change we can believe in, the slogan went," he said near the end of his speech. "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."
But now, he went on, "A new year has come. A new decade stretches before us. We don't quit. I don't quit."
He repeated "we can" or "we will" a total of 23 times.
There is no denying he faces serious problems. The health care bill he once demanded be passed last fall is in legislative limbo, and while he called changing the system essential he didn't outline a strategy to regain its momentum. The loss of Edward Kennedy's Senate seat - and in one of the bluest states in the nation - has spooked Democratic candidates and officeholders, now braced for setbacks in November's congressional elections.
Obama didn't reverse the positions he took a year ago, but he did reorder his priorities and recast his message.
That was an acknowledgement of a hard political fact: If Obama was unable to push through signature initiatives during the heady first year of his presidency, he is less likely to achieve such lofty ambitions during his second year, when members of Congress are focused first on their own re-election battles.
His goals have been tailored, at least for now.
In 2009, he said, "Let there be no doubt: Health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year."
This year, he in effect called for a cooling-off period before work continued on the health care bill his administration has been pushing.
"This is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became," he said. "I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people. And I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, this process left most Americans wondering what's in it for them."
Still, he said, the need for change hasn't gone away. "As temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we've proposed."
Obama tried to regain the sense from the 2008 campaign that he was an outsider standing with disillusioned Americans against the partisan Washington establishment. He chastised Republicans for "just saying no to everything" and reminded majority Democrats, "The people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills."
No surprise, then, that some of what he said, including on his budget priorities, didn't sit well with congressional Democrats. Even before he had climbed the steps on the dais, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Politico that defense spending, which Obama had exempted from his three-year spending freeze, should be subjected to the same discipline. "We're not here to protect defense contractors," she said.
Obama may feel he's on strong footing to take on Congress. His middling approval rating of 50 percent in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll this month dwarfed that of Capitol Hill. In the survey of 1,023 adults Jan. 8-10, just 24 percent approved of the way Congress was handling its job.
A more distressing finding for the administration in the poll was the fact that good feelings about the direction of the country, which was building in the first seven months of his tenure, has eroded again. More than three in four of those surveyed said they were dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States. Just 23 percent were satisfied.
Other presidents who hit turbulence have tried to use the State of the Union Address to make their case and adjust their course. In 1974, Richard Nixon defended his record, offered a litany of legislative proposals and urged lawmakers to move on from scandal. "One year of Watergate is enough," he told them.
His plea didn't sway congressional investigators, and by the end of summer, he had resigned.
After a Democratic rout in the 1994 congressional elections, Bill Clinton outlined a more centrist agenda in the 1995 State of the Union. In his 1996 address, he declared, "The era of big government is over."
Democratic consultant Mark Penn, who advised Clinton, says he sees the same sort of "inflection point" now for Obama.
"He's got a moment where he's got to answer the question on people's minds, and I don't think the question is who's to blame for the problems of last year," Penn said in a phone interview from Davos, Switzerland. "I think the question is: 'What are you going to do differently this year?' "