Obama's State of the Union Address Had Everything and Nothing

The president came short of forging any real bipartisan cooperation, especially on healthcare.

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By Linda Killian, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The obvious question following President Barack Obama's bravura State of the Union performance is what happens now. As so many have said and written, it was a good speech. And Obama delivered it in the same smooth, effortless way he might perform if he were playing a basketball pick-up game with members of Congress--a little humor, a little self-deprecation, some spine-stiffening encouragement for his teammates, and some taunting of his opponents thrown in for good measure.

The speech hit all the bases. There was something for everyone. There was talk of a jobs bill and concern over the economic plight of anxious middle-class families. There was a call for a spending freeze and acknowledgement of the importance of reducing the deficit for independents and blue dog Democrats. There was a proposal for a small-business tax credit, elimination of capital gains taxes on small-business investment, and tax incentives for businesses investment, which elicited a tremendous cheer from Republicans in the House chamber. And for his liberal base, he made sure to blame George W. Bush and the Republican Congress for the deficit he inherited, called for gays to be permitted to serve openly in the military, and vowed to fight on and not abandon healthcare reform.

There were optimistic Reaganesque references to the American spirit and greatness, such as, "I have never been more hopeful about America's future than I am tonight."

The speech had everything and yet in a way it had nothing. People could hear in it what they wanted to hear and take from it what they wanted to take. What it didn't have were details about a path forward on actually passing healthcare reform or forging bipartisan solutions to the problems and issues the speech raised.

Halfway through the speech, Obama finally addressed healthcare reform. And when he told the members, "If anyone from either party has a better approach…let me know," Minority Leader John Boehner raised his hand. But I don't think he really meant it. Some level of cooperation from Republicans might have been possible six months ago, but following the elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and most notably Massachusetts, the GOP smells blood in the water and will probably see little advantage in helping the Democrats out of their health reform quandary.

Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York told me after the speech he thinks Obama was "the game changer in chief." Weiner said health reform may have been near death but Obama's speech was "the equivalent of an EMT with those paddles." Although Obama gave no specifics about the way forward in passing health reform, Weiner said the speech "did enough for me." Weiner said he doesn't think Democrats want to abandon six months of work and are determined to pass something. But Jason Altmire, a moderate Democrat from western Pennsylvania's 4th District who voted against the House healthcare reform bill last fall, doesn't see it that way. "I think the opportunity to do that has passed," said Altmire.

Altmire said he doesn't think the House will pass the Senate bill, there are mixed feelings about trying to do something through the reconciliation process, and doing reform in pieces won't work. "I don't know that Congress has the appetite to continue the fight," he said. Altmire was cheered by Obama's talk of a spending freeze and trying to tackle the deficit, and he believes that is what the American people are most concerned about along with jobs and the economy. "They don't feel like Congress is addressing the issues that are important to them."

Altmire and Weiner, at different ends of the ideological spectrum within the Democratic Party, represent the challenge for Obama in trying to hold together the Democratic congressional coalition as well as include Republicans in the process.

Obama can talk about coming together and finishing the job for the American people, but based on the past year, it's not at all clear that Democratic congressional leaders, chief among them Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have any real interest in working with Republicans or including their ideas in legislation. And now, the Republicans may not have much incentive to try.

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