President Obama's State of the Union address wasn't just a rhetorical exercise to describe his agenda for 2010. It was also the kickoff of a full-fledged campaign to stake out the high ground in his fight with congressional Republicans and prove to stressed-out Americans that he will make job creation his top priority.
Obama admitted that he has endured "some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved." But he added: "I wake up every day knowing that they are nothing compared to the setbacks that families all across this country have faced this year. And what keeps me going, what keeps me fighting, is that despite all these setbacks, that spirit of determination and optimism, that fundamental decency that has always been at the core of the American people, lives on."
Within 24 hours of his Wednesday night address, Obama was on the road for the start of a barnstorming tour that will take his message across the country. His first event last Thursday, was in sharp contrast to the formal ritual of the State of the Union—a shirt-sleeve appearance at a town-hall meeting with Vice President Joe Biden in Tampa. "The worst of the storm of storms has passed," Obama said in Florida, "but 1 in 10 Americans can't find work. That is why creating jobs has to be our No. 1 priority in 2010." Taking a somewhat more combative approach than he took in the State of the Union, Obama added: "Change never comes without a fight. I won't stop fighting, and I know you won't, either." Next on his itinerary was a speech in Baltimore about his job-creation proposals.
But no matter how feisty or eloquent the president is, the success of his administration will depend on how effective he is in delivering results. "We've had the rhetoric and the show," says Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan. "Now we need to see the deeds and not just the words." This show-me philosophy is shared by congressional Republicans who have opposed Obama on many of his major initiatives, from his economic stimulus package to his current proposal to overhaul the healthcare system.
Healthcare, in fact, had been Obama's top domestic priority since he took office a year ago, but the legislation has stalled in Congress, and Americans now tell pollsters that it is not nearly as important to them as reducing unemployment and strengthening the economy.
Still, Obama pledged not to give up on healthcare reform. He didn't clarify what an eventual compromise might look like and accepted a share of the blame for not adequately explaining to the public what an overhaul would do. But he said many Americans need a healthcare reform bill to gain adequate coverage, to eliminate abusive practices by insurance companies, and to hold down costs. "I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber," he told assembled lawmakers at the joint session of Congress.
While his latest agenda was filled with familiar initiatives, there were some new ones. Obama called for a series of tax incentives for small businesses; slashing tax breaks for companies that shift jobs overseas; providing tax breaks for firms that create jobs in the United States; freezing most discretionary domestic spending for three years; and building "safe, clean nuclear power plants" as part of his energy strategy to reduce reliance on foreign oil.
He also said he would issue an executive order creating a bipartisan commission to recommend ways of reducing the deficit. The Senate rejected a measure to create such a panel before the speech, so the president decided to move ahead unilaterally.
Overall, it's clear that he faces a rocky road. Democrats are divided on key parts of his agenda, such as healthcare and his proposal for the domestic spending freeze. And Republicans are united against him. In the official GOP response to the State of the Union, Bob McDonnell, the new governor of Virginia, criticized Obama as a big-spending, big-government liberal. "Top-down, one-size-fits-all decision making should not replace the personal choices of free people in a free market nor undermine the proper role of state and local governments in our system of federalism," McDonnell said.
Congressional Republicans launched an attack on Obama for supposedly giving short shrift to the war on terrorism. GOP critics were outraged, for example, that Obama devoted only a few minutes of his 71-minute address to national security. "One of the biggest headlines from last night's speech is what the president did not say: a single word about the botched interrogation of the Christmas bomber and [Obama's] quest to provide foreign terrorists with the same legal rights as the Americans they target," said Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
For their part, Democratic operatives were eager to return fire. "The Republicans are standing with special interests to block healthcare and standing in the way of regulatory reform," says a Democratic strategist. "We need to draw clear lines to sharpen the distinctions about what they stand for and what we stand for." The continued sniping showed how far away bipartisanship truly is.