"Change has not come fast enough," President Obama acknowledged in his State of the Union address--especially for Americans who are losing their jobs and struggling through the long recession.
Then, in a speech aimed more at Congress than the American people, he began a long plea to Republicans to work in a more bipartisan fashion to pass the very legislation they are determined to torpedo.
He didn't even mention health care reform until nearly half way through his speech--and then it was only a tepid cry to keep on plugging and, to Republicans, to come to him with new ideas--as if this legislation hadn't been the centerpiece priority of his Administration, and made it all the way through both houses of Congress. But before he even got to that, Obama endorsed a program of tax cuts and a general spending freeze that brought Republicans to their feet.
"How long should we wait? How long should American put its future on hold?" he asked. American citizens might well ask the same question of him.
After acknowledging popular disgust with Wall Street, Obama defended the bank bailout. "We all hated the bank bailout. I hated it, you hated it." But without it, "the unemployment rate might be double what it is today." On the other hand, the big banks could have been broken up and CEOs prosecuted as criminals instead of given a blank check, but never mind. Obama did endorse a fee on the biggest banks to pay back the taxpayers--a common sense move he had resisted until recently.
Then he segued into tax cuts, which got a huge cheer from the Democrats. "We haven't raised income taxes by a single dime on a single person," he trumpeted.
He touted the Recovery Act for creating jobs, and, predictably the Republicans sat on their hands.
But after that brief, awkward moment, it was the Republicans' night. Speaking of jobs, "The true engine of jobs will always be America's businesses," Obama declared, to a rousing ovation. "The first order of business," for the new year, he declared, will be a jobs bill.
Um, what happened to health care?
Sure, John Boehner shook his head and looked as if he were making rude remarks to his neighbor when Obama proposed using a piddling tax on Wall Street to help give small businesses access to credit the big banks are denying them so they can stay alive. (So much for Republican champions of small business.) But the talk of eliminating capital gains taxes on small businesses, and the other bones he threw to the rightwing ideologues, including a top priority on clean energy of "safe, clean nuclear power plants" and "opening new areas for offshore gas development" won smiles from the likes of Mitch McConnell.
Obama took a few swipes at "those who doubt the overwhelming evidence on climate change," and he bashed Wall Street and lobbyists (though his claim to take a tough stand against lobbyists in his Administration drew audible boos). He rightly criticized the recent Supreme Court decision that will "open the floodgates" of corporate money to influence elections. But then he went flaccid. Instead of proposing actual legislation, he said, "I'd urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that will help correct some of these problems." Great. You guys think of something, will you? Let me know when you've got it figured out.
Overall, he was reading from the New Democrat script: conceding the ideological high ground to Republicans on cutting taxes and limiting the size of government.
Worst of all was his pledge to freeze all government spending apart from Defense, Medicare, and Social Security, starting in 2011.
This is the very mistake FDR made, prolonging the Great Depression. This policy of beginning to turn around the economy with government stimulus, and then reversing course and becoming a deficit hawk, bodes ill for those down-on their-luck Americans Obama referenced at the start of his speech.
Obama claimed credit for the Democrats for the Clinton-era surplus, and rightly blamed Republicans for running up the deficit. But then he joined the right in making government debt public enemy number one. He got a firm second on that view by Governor Bob McDonnel of Virginia in the Republican response--boilerplate bashing of Democrats in Congress for deficit spending. That just goes to show that conceding the high ground only means you are backed into a corner.
Backpedaling on health care, Obama sounded like he had already lost the fight--even as some Democrats in Congress are arguing for using their supermajority (before Kennedy's seat turns Republican) to push through the existing health care plan. "I take my share of the blame," Obama said, for the putative lack of public confidence in health care reform, and then he urged Republicans to "take another look" at his approach, or maybe come to him with ideas of their own.
This is where Mitch McConnell got to his feet to applaud. You know we are in trouble now.
He went on to talk more about reigning in debt with a crippling pay-as-you-go rule.
There were a few throw-aways, like a web site that will publish all earmark requests in Congress that comes right out of the McCain campaign.
Rather unfairly, I'm sure it seemed to his Democratic colleagues, he scolded them, saying, "People expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills." Um, like abandoning health care until page 11 you mean?
To the Republicans he said: "Just saying no to everything is good short-term politics, but it's not leadership." Not sure how much that one stung McConnell and Boehner, actually.
Sometime right before midnight we got a couple of bright spots for gay people and women: the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and an end to sexual orientation discrimination in the military, and enforcement of equal pay laws. Hurray, said the few hardcore members of the base who were still watching.
Oh yeah, and he mentioned nuclear nonproliferation--another bright spot.
The conclusion: people are losing faith because of bankers and lobbyists and blowhard pundits, was nicely done. As was his acknowledgement that people are discouraged about the whole idea of change and even "whether I can deliver". But the theme of blaming Washington and both parties and making a plea to people to get together and play nicely just seems, given the political realities, like giving up.
Obama should take his own advice about putting politics aside and get something done--at least his own declared goal of passing health care. Otherwise he risks becoming the coolest, most fair-minded, thoughtful, and least effectual President the Democrats have ever had.
At long last he got to the line: "We still need health insurance reform."
© 2010 The Progressive
Ruth Conniff covers national politics for The Progressive and is a voice of The Progressive on many TV and radio programs. Conniff was a regular on CNN’s Sunday Capital Gang and is now a regular on PBS’s To the Contrary. She also has appeared frequently on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal and on NPR and Pacifica.
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