At a grim time, Americans tonight saw a jaunty and optimistic President Obama. Even as he acknowledged the difficulty the country was facing – and for that matter, the difficulty his presidency was facing – Mr. Obama’s speech tonight was filled with optimism and at times carefully measured defiance.
Optimism is one of the most powerful forces in American politics – as Ronald Reagan showed it – and Mr. Obama flashed optimism tonight as often as he flashed a smile, from the start of the speech until the finish, even when he acknowledged the problems if his fist year. If there is one thing that has become clear over the years that Mr. Obama has been on the public stage, it’s that it’s risky judging how a speech is going to go over from an advanced reading of the text. That was on display when he talked about the money the government spent last year to help the economy – that’s right – the Recovery Act, also known as the Stimulus bill, he said.
And it was on display in his emotional peroration in which he talked – to an utterly still chamber — about the challenges of his first term, and the difficulty of producing the change that he promised as a candidate.
“We have come through a difficult decade. But a new year has come. A new decade stretches before us. We don’t quit. I don’t quit”
How effective will it be politically? Even as Americans have turned against many of Mr. Obama’s policies, they have continued to like him personally in most polls; there seemed no reason to think that will change after the speech tonight.
Congress is another question. Mr. Obama pleaded with his audience not to let this moment pass on health care, but he was vague about how he would achieve that goal. He did not seem to be looking for a fight: He said he was open to other alternatives and said that Congress should wait to let temperatures cool.
At the same time, though, Mr. Obama very pointedly addressed the problems he has had with the Senate where Republicans, after the election in Massachusetts last week, now have 41 votes, enough to sustain a filibuster. Now, Mr. Obama said, Republicans had to share the responsibility for government. “Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership,” he said. “We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.’
Again, he turned to the Republican side of the chamber when he made those remarks. And again, the reaction was silence.
Doubling Down on Message by Jeff Zeleny
After President Obama left the Capitol and returned to the White House, what can we take away from his assessment of his first year in office and his plan for the next?
He left the impression that he had drawn more than a few lessons from the bruising battle over health care. He expressed regret for allowing the process to devolve into the type of Washington morass that he campaigned against. And he said he would “take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people.”
But he went on to argue for many of the same provisions that had become bogged down in the House and Senate. He went on to express the urgency for doing something – anything – to reduce costs of health care and see to it that more Americans receive insurance coverage. And he went on to challenge Republicans that at least part of the onus is now on them, given their newfound strength in the Senate.
“As temperatures cool,” Mr. Obama said, “I want everyone to take another look at the plan we’ve proposed.”
That comment, perhaps, best underscores the philosophy that Mr. Obama and his team are operating under as they enter the next phase of his presidency.
There will be few course corrections, particularly on substance. The president, instead, cast any failings as ones of strategy or message, rather than errors of substance. At one point, Mr. Obama rebutted assertions that he had underestimated the hard realities of governing.
“Now, I am not naïve,” Mr. Obama said. “I never thought the mere fact of my election would usher in peace, harmony, and some post-partisan era.”
There were several lofty moments in the speech, many of which brought to mind some of the very attributes that helped him win the White House. It was clear that Mr. Obama and his advisers were trying to restart his relationship with voters – particularly the independent ones – that has grown strained over the past year. But it was less clear whether America will see a different president in the coming months and beyond.
He doubled down on what sent him to Washington in the first place: a wave of discontent, a yearning for change, a desire to improve the economic lot for Americans. He might change his approach, but left little question that he would change his agenda.
“To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills,” Mr. Obama said. “And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well.”
He didn’t say how the two parties could co-exist.
Little Attention to Foreign Affairs by Helene Cooper
President Obama spent nine minutes on national security issues Wednesday night, promising Americans that he would fight terrorism and warning Iran that its leaders will face “growing consequences” if they continue to ignore international calls to rein in their nuclear ambitions.
In a speech dominated by domestic issues, Mr. Obama spared little time for the subject of America’s relations with the world. He made no mention at all of stalled Middle East peace proposals, nor did he mention the brewing turmoil between the United States and its biggest global economic rival, China over internet freedom.
In fact, the only mention he made of China was when he cast Beijing in the role of economic threat to the United States. For instance, Mr. Obama said there was no reason why Europe and China should have faster trains than the United States. He said that China isn’t waiting to revamp its economy (nor India or Germany).
“These nations aren’t playing for second place,” Mr. Obama said. “They are making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs.” He pledged to double American exports over the next five years, through a National Export Initiative, but offered few details.
David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and foreign policy expert, said Wednesday night that he “can’t recall a state of the union that devoted less time or attention to foreign policy issues than this one.”
Mr. Rothkopf, author of a book about the National Security Council, said that Mr. Obama has gauged that Americans right now are “wounded and looking inward.”
Aiming for First Place by David Sanger
Many presidents have looked for their “Sputnik’’ moment — the chance to spur along Congress, and the nation, by making the case that America is falling behind.
Mr. Obama took a stab at that several times in his speech. He asked why Europeans and the Chinese can build high-speed trains, but Amtrak seems on the same old slow track. (He forgot Japan, which has run its bullet trains now for nearly 40 years.) He noted that “China’s not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany’s not waiting. India’s not waiting. These nations arent’ standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place.’’
For Mr. Obama, the competition now is not space, but clean energy. But he was a lot less specific about what kind of methods he would employ to reduce global warming than he was a year ago.
He also made the case that America was falling behind in seeking new export markets and investing in new skills. But in his effort to keep the tone upbeat, he never painted a picture of what happen if the United States loses some of these races to countries that are fleeter of foot – or simply get their act together faster. In 2010, the competition is a lot more broadly-based than the space race was, and that makes it far more complicated to win.
And on nuclear threats:
And when he turned to what is arguably his highest international priority – locking down loose nuclear material and ultimately ridding the world of nuclear weapons – Mr. Obama made the argument that his diplomatic maneuvers in the past year have “strengthened our hand in dealing with those nations that insist on violating international agreements in pursuit of these weapons. ‘’ He made the case that North Korea “now faces increased isolation, and stronger sanctions’’ and that Iran “is more isolated’’ and “will face growing consequences.’’
But Mr. Obama did not repeat his frequent line that a nuclear Iran would never be tolerated – something the Israelis are bound to note. Apart from that allusion to “consequences’’ he never called on the world to invoke sanctions on Iran, even though the administration has said that is what it will do now that the Iranians have ignored his effort at engagement. Mr. Obama has changed the tone of American diplomacy. But in his first year, the North Koreans backed away from their agreements with Washington, and Iran added to its stockpile of uranium. The changed tone went only so far.
That is why North Korea now faces increased isolation, and stronger sanctions – sanctions that are being vigorously enforced. That is why the international community is more united, and the Islamic Republic of Iran is more isolated. And as Iran’s leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences.