In politics, people usually see what they want to see. The truth is, President Obama would probably be attacked by the Right for reading a list of Republican talking points. And the State of the Union doesn’t typically do much in the short term to shore up a President’s approval numbers anyway. But Wednesday’s speech was a chance for Obama to propose a revised agenda and reframe the national political debate. And as usual he made the most of the opportunity.
The President’s greatest strength may be his ability to make a nuanced case for his policy agenda in terms that we can easily understand. Obama has probably relied too much on that ability in his first year in office, finding out to his cost that you can’t win arguments in Washington solely on their merits. But this week his ability served him well. He took Republicans to task for their obstructionist strategy of opposing everything simply as a way of making the Democrats look ineffective. And he called the Democrats out for their inability to accomplish much even with a historically large majority in Congress. Both parties, he suggested, focus too much on winning elections and not enough on getting things done. America, he said, is frustrated with “a Washington where every day is Election Day.”
Most importantly, President Obama addressed the issue which for many Americans is the most pressing at the top of his speech. The bank bailout, he said, was a necessary evil, which he had hated as much as everyone else had. But now that the financial system had been stabilized it is time to focus on creating jobs, working to improve economic conditions for ordinary Americans, and putting into place regulations to prevent another financial meltdown like this from happening. As I have written, that’s probably exactly what he has to do both as a matter of economic policy and morally. It is also probably key to improving the Democrats’ chances this fall.
What President Obama didn’t do was push very hard to save health care reform. He asked Congress some 50 minutes into his speech “not to walk away from reform,” but he didn’t promise to personally make sure it passes. He may very well push hard for it behind the scenes, but health care reform is clearly not where Obama—who has been very careful about picking his public battles—wants to make his public stand. It’s understandable that he might not want to stake his presidency on health care, given how unpopular the current bill seems to be and how difficult it may now be to pass. But it may still be a mistake not to throw his public support behind health care reform, because he will inevitably be held responsible if it fails in any case. Obama and the Democrats would probably do better to pass a flawed bill than to let it die after getting this far. It’s not clear they can distance themselves from health care now.