That was my initial gut reaction after the speech, “What was he thinking?” I expected optimistic oratory and I got a speech that seemed angry in its tone. In fact, as I was listening, it seemed like it took sometime before the President said a line that got applause – something that is rare for a State of the Union Address. Looking at the transcript, it was about 10% of the way through the speech that he got his first applause line. While that might not seem like much, most Presidents get an applause right at the beginning of a State of the Union Address by simply saying the “state of our union is strong.”
So what was different? After reflecting on it last night, it dawned on me that the President was not directing this speech to the American people but at Congress itself. In doing so, he was trying to reflect the anger that the American people felt towards
When I started to think about it, it made sense. He was trying to be the voice of the American people and criticize Congress for the tone and the way the “politics as usual” is done in that town. When things are going well economically, the American citizenry is much more willing to put up with political rancor. But when things go wrong, they turn on its politicians for playing petty politics and not trying to work towards common solutions. Along these lines, the President took both parties to task for the anger the people are feeling. He criticized the Democrats for having “the largest majority in decades and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.” He then turned to the Republicans and said “if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business … then the responsibility to govern is now yours, as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership.” He then summed it up with a line as he looked at both parties and said, “We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.”
He didn’t stop there though. Those of you who read my blog regularly and listened to the President last night had to know that the line that I loved the most was when he said, “Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths and pointing fingers. We can do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation.” I honestly believe that the President believes this. As he said earlier in the speech, he “didn’t take on health care because it was good politics.” In fact, I applaud the President for standing by his convictions regardless of the political cost. Ultimately, it may hurt his party come the fall elections, but he has committed himself to trying to accomplish these goals and that conviction came through last night.
So, in my preview, I was saying that the first thing I would be looking forwas optimistic oratory. While I didn’t get it, what I got instead, actually impressed me. It was a different kind of speech from the President and only time will tell if it resonates or works. We’ll see if he follows up on his promise to engage Republicans on health care reform or other issues and to hold monthly meetings with the senior leadership of both parties. Unfortunately, in an election year, there might not be much that gets done, but it could lay the critical groundwork for next year when there is a short window to accomplish things before the Presidential race of 2012 starts heating up.
The second thing I said I was going to look for is for the President to tell Congress exactly what he wanted them to do on health care reform. I’ve read some pundits this morning that seem to suggest that he didn’t say. I disagree (and it may be because the pundits didn’t like the answer). It seemed clear to me that he wants to engage Republicans on the issue and come to some consensus. In fact, he said, “Don't walk away from reform, not now, not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. Let's get it done.” He also said that if anyone “from either party” had ideas that met his goals of bringing down premiums and the deficit, covering the uninsured, strengthening Medicare for seniors, and stopping insurance company abuses, that he wanted them to let him know.
Ultimately, we will see how this progresses over the next couple months, but I hope that Republicans take this invitation seriously and engage in the process and stop just being the party of “No!” Also, I hope the liberal Democratic leadership (read: Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) will allow some open discussion with the Republicans regarding the health care bill and will not just insist that it be their bill or nothing at all. I think that President Obama’s political advisor David Axelrod said it best a few weeks ago when he said that the Democrats cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In other words, some health care reform bill is better than none at all.
The last thing I said I was looking for was how the President would address the economy and the budget deficit. Not surprisingly, it is how the President started his speech as he said his number one priority was a jobs bill. Everyone, including Republicans applauded the line. But will they vote for it? That remains to be seen. The devil will be in the details and the President provided some, such as tax credits for small businesses who hire and for “green jobs” and cutting capital gains taxes for small business investment. As he actually gave the details, I was struck by how much was there that Republicans could actually support. Bi-partisan support should be able to embrace those issues, we shall see if they do. The president wants it done immediately. It will rest in the Senate Republicans hands to see if they engage or simply continue to say no and use their new found member to filibuster the bill.
On deficit reduction, the President reiterated his call for a spending freeze on discretionary spending starting with the next budget (2011). He also called on the Senate to reinstate the PAY-GO laws which simply means that any new legislation which deals with revenues or expenditures must be revenue neutral, so if you are proposing a tax cut, you must show an equal offsetting expense reduction or raise in other taxes. The same goes with expenditures. Those of you who have read my blog from the beginning and read my essay on the 2008 election know that I am a HUGE fan of this law and it is one of the main reasons I was critical of the Republicans during the Bush administration who wrote tax cuts to avoid the PAYGO structure because they knew it couldn’t pass the muster of that law. Eventually, the Republicans just repealed it as the deficits grew so it wouldn’t hamper their plans. Ultimately, we’ll see what Congress does on these issues, but I like what the President proposed.
I don’t want people to think that they were not things that I disagreed with in the speech – there were, but this post is getting long already. In summary, I thought it was hypocritical for the President to call for more transparency in law making when the Democrats were not doing that on the health care bill. I also thought it was hypocritical for him to criticize the recent Supreme Court decision on campaign finances when he is the biggest campaign fundraiser in the history of electoral politics. I also found that it was getting old that he continued to blame President Bush for the deficit he inherited. We know already that you inherited a bad economic situation, why do you always have to remind us? Surprising to some of my conservative friends, I will not criticize Obama on his call to repeal “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell,” but that is for another post.
One final note again about bi-partisanship: since the Senate voted down the independent bipartisan commission on deficit reduction, the President said he would appoint one by executive order. While it will not have the same weight that a Congressionally appointed commission would have had, I liked that he wasn’t going to be held hostage by the extremes of both parties who are the ones that defeated the commission in the first place. Now that’s leadership and it’s why on the whole, I thought the President’s speech was exactly what was called for in the midst of this political chaos.