The most important questions hanging over the Capitol dome Wednesday night as President Barack Obama gave his first State of the Union address may have been more about the state of the president than the state of the country.
Can President Obama lead, given his precarious hold on public support? Can the electorate, weary of a deep recession, two costly wars and bitter partisan wrangling, be persuaded to continue climbing a mountain toward change? Can the president persuade enough members of Congress to choose his course — or any course — toward a brighter future?
If not, the state of the union will languish in a sort of purgatory. But for the nation to get back on track, several moving parts must work together.
His speech, depending on one’s political perspective, was either spine-stiffening and inspiring or irritatingly vague, platitudinous and scolding. President Obama has always been good at identifying the nation’s big problems and articulating an overview of how to fix them. What he now needs to learn is how to choose fixes that work in the real world and then to effectively sell them to a skeptical public and Congress.
As often is the case, policies and politics have mixed in an unappetizing soup, and the president is trying to dump out the pot and try another recipe. President Obama won the 2008 election with strong support from Democrats, independents and even some Republicans. It’s safe to assume that a plurality of Americans wanted a course change from that charted by George W. Bush. A risky assumption, seemingly made by the new president, was that those voting for him supported progressive Democratic ideology. They were behind him, but not necessarily his ideas. The strength of the opposition to bank bailouts (begun under the Bush administration), job stimulus package and comprehensive health care reform seems to have surprised the administration.
President Obama’s speech Wednesday night, pundits observed, was his chance to reset. So he reminded the nation that his predecessor left him with an economy teetering on the edge of the abyss, a record deficit and two wars. President Ronald Reagan did the same in 1982, also during a deep recession, reminding the nation how the policies of his predecessor created the mess.
But from this point forward, the burden of finding solutions lies with President Obama. It also lies with Democrats, who have strong majorities in the Senate and House. And it lies with Republicans. One practical step the president pledged to take is to speak monthly with GOP members of Congress in their caucus meetings, and to meet more regularly with that party’s leaders.
For their part, Republicans must grab an oar and row. If they don’t like the health care proposal, they must identify ways to tweak or amend it to make the measure better. Voting in unison against new initiatives, simply because they came from the president or Democrats, does not serve the nation. Likewise, Democrats can’t dismiss all Republican ideas.
On health care reform, the president has not effectively explained to Americans why it is so critical, and why it is tied to his stated top priority: jobs. Reducing health care costs for business saves and creates jobs. Every time premiums jump 5 percent, small businesses must shell out thousands more dollars, which instead could be used to retain or create jobs.
Americans are right to be wary of big government solutions. But in times of economic deprivation, it is only government that can act and prime the economic pump. In the end, government is us; if it reaches too far, if well-intended policies fail, if unintended consequences emerge, Congress and the president can change them — or be changed themselves by the voters.
President Obama still enjoys relatively strong personal approval ratings (52 percent positive to 32 percent negative, according to an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released Jan. 25). People voted for Mr. Obama believing he made the case for giving him a chance. Now he must persuade Americans that not only must bold steps be taken to jump-start the economy, but that this moment in time is as good as any to rebuild the malfunctioning components of that economy. His speech Wednesday night was a start; President Obama must now, as one pundit said, tap his community organizing skills and get the electorate and Congress on board, and set aside the law professor skills for a time.