Finally, Some Spine

By Joan Walsh, Salon - January 28, 2010

In case he wasn't fully aware that Republicans are impervious to his political charm, President Obama saw it early in his first State of the Union address. After ticking off a list of taxes he'd lowered, the chamber was in cheers -- except for the GOP side of the aisle, where traditionally tax-cutters have clustered. Obama smiled and ad-libbed, "I expected some applause for that one."

Just like he expected some GOP cooperation when he became president a year ago – but he got neither. In this State of the Union speech Obama showed more spine and fire than he has of late, mainly using humor to turn the GOP's dourness back on itself. It was a strong address, but it will take more than words for Obama to get his agenda back on track.

The best of the speech: In terms of policy, I was glad to see him demand that Congress continue to work on health care reform – though I was a little disturbed he offered no specifics. As the Washington Post's Ezra Klein (who's doing some of the best reporting on health care) Tweeted, "Notably, Obama did not say pass the Senate bill or amend the Senate bill. There's no more clarity on process." And it was a half hour into the speech before he mentioned it.

Obama also made a strong call for imposing fees on banks to repay the TARP program, and the camera shot of Republicans sitting silently, not clapping, will make for great Democratic campaign ads in November. He reaffirmed his commitment to letting the Bush era tax cuts expire (he'd supported that already, but in this climate of Democratic cowardice it was good to hear it again.) He announced a new jobs program, though at $30 billion it falls far short of what's needed. And he recommitted himself to repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- I'm not sure what to make of the scary camera shot of unhappy-seeming Joint Chiefs that followed -- but it's still not clear exactly what he'll do to make that discrimination history.

The worst of the speech: Obama is borrowing too much rhetoric, and policy, from the GOP. He supported his spending freeze by saying "Families across the country are tightening their belts, and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same." That's a disingenuous comparison, and downright dangerous in a recession. The government needs to spend when families can't. Unbelievably, he led his section on energy policy by calling to expand nuclear power, clean coal and offshore drilling – nothing that Sarah Palin could quarrel with. (And still, when he talked about scientific evidence of climate change, he faced grumbles from the GOP side.)

Personally, I enjoyed hearing the president lecture both parties on their responsibility to the American people. To Democrats acting like they're suddenly in the minority since Scott Brown became the 41st Republican senator last week, he said, essentially, "Buck up." In Obama's words: "Democrats, I remind you we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills." Predictably, and justifiably, he was harder on Republicans: "If the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town -- a supermajority -- then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to solve problems, not serve our ambitions." But throughout the speech, House Minority Leader John Boehner and his sidekick Eric Cantor sat together smirking like pissy little schoolboys, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell chuckled at the notion "Just say no" might be bad for the country.

Still, maybe I'm naïve, but there was a fascinating silence in the chamber for the last few minutes of the speech, as Obama continued to remind the Congress of its responsibilities and recommit himself to his agenda. Even Republicans seemed to be listening. He praised "the generations of Americans who did what was hard," adding "We don't quit. I don't quit."

It was a good speech. It was better and tougher than I expected (I didn't expect him to tweak the GOP for playing "Just say no," for instance). But I've swooned over Obama's speeches before. The man can do speeches. He needs to follow this one up with tough action to make his agenda reality before it will really be more than just words to me.




11:45 p.m.: Below, a sampling of reactions to Obama's speech, from both sides of the aisle.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: "Like the President, Senate Democrats are focused on putting Americans back to work, protecting struggling homeowners, strengthening our national security and ensuring affordable health insurance.

"President Obama engaged America in a conversation about what has worked, what needs improvement and how we can move forward together. Senate Democrats view the challenge of cleaning up the mess we inherited as an opportunity to set our nation back on the path to progress and prosperity.

"Nevadans and all Americans should know that their leaders in Washington understand their struggles and have a plan to relieve them. Jobs are still too few, health care is still too scarce and expensive, foreclosures are still too frequent and our energy future is still too treacherous. With thousands of Nevadans and millions of Americans under this tremendous pressure to make ends meet, now is no time to let up. As the President expressed tonight, we are moving full speed ahead in bringing about the meaningful change that we were sent to Washington to deliver."

House Minority Leader John Boehner: "We were pleased to welcome the President to the People’s House tonight for his annual address to the nation. We had hoped to hear a new commitment to keep his promises to govern from the center, change the tone in Washington, and work with both parties in a bipartisan way to help small businesses create jobs and get our economy moving again. Unfortunately, the President and the Democrats in charge of Congress still aren’t listening to the American people."

"The American people were looking for President Obama to change course tonight, and they got more of the same job-killing policies instead. If the President and the Democratic leaders of Congress are serious about helping the middle class, they will abandon their job-killing agenda, which is making it harder for middle-class families and small businesses to save, invest, and hire. That includes a trillion-dollar ‘stimulus’ that isn’t working, a fiscally-irresponsible budget that doubles our debt in five years and triples it in 10, a costly government takeover of health care, and a massive national energy tax. The President’s message isn’t the problem, it’s his job-killing policies. The American people don’t want them, and that’s why they are saying ‘Enough is enough.’

"For the last year, Republicans have been standing with the American people in asking the question: ‘where are the jobs?’ But all we have seen from Washington Democrats is more reckless spending and more unsustainable debt. Republicans have offered better solutions to help small businesses create jobs, lower health care premiums by up to 10 percent, and an ‘all-of-the-above’ strategy to clean up the environment, increase American energy production, and promote clean energy alternatives. It’s long past time for Democrats to start working with Republicans on common-sense solutions on behalf of middle-class families and small businesses struggling in this economy."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell": "In his State of the Union address, President Obama asked Congress to repeal the 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' policy. I am immensely proud of, and thankful for, every American who wears the uniform of our country, especially at a time of war, and I believe it would be a mistake to repeal the policy.

"This successful policy has been in effect for over fifteen years, and it is well understood and predominantly supported by our military at all levels. We have the best trained, best equipped, and most professional force in the history of our country, and the men and women in uniform are performing heroically in two wars. At a time when our Armed Forces are fighting and sacrificing on the battlefield, now is not the time to abandon the policy."

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., on his Twitter account: "I only hope my Republican colleagues use this moment as an opportunity to re-think their strategy of mindless obstructionism."

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.: "Working families in Montana and across the country are struggling with an economy that isn’t creating the jobs Americans need or the opportunities they want, and tonight we heard a continued commitment to building the middle-class economy. We need to act to help small businesses grow, to create jobs producing new forms of energy and put Americans to work rebuilding infrastructure like our highways, bridges and water systems. I applaud the President’s dedication to bring new hope to our economy. In the coming weeks, I will work with my colleagues to pursue targeted tax cuts that fulfill the President’s goals of strengthening the middle class, bolstering our economy and creating American jobs.

"We will also work with President Obama to pass comprehensive health care reform that lifts the burden of skyrocketing health care costs off of American families, businesses and our federal deficits. Health care costs are growing far faster than our economy and, as a result, slowing our economic recovery. When a strong bill that lowers health care costs becomes law, businesses will be better able to hire and invest, families will be better able to protect their savings and the federal deficit will shrink. Health reform helps fulfill the promise to get our economy back on track.

"Health reform also represents a critical component in our effort to combat a decade of ballooning federal debt. Health reform will cut the deficit by more than $100 billion in the first ten years and by hundreds of billions more in the decade that follows. Reducing the federal debt is critical to a strong and vibrant economy, and we stand with President Obama in our shared commitment to tackle this challenge head on."

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., on his Twitter account: "The President effectively changed the subject tonight from HCR to the economy, fiscal responsibility, & the need for more bipartisanship. Now it's up to him and us to act in response to his invocation tonight."

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele: "Tonight, after a year of failed policies and broken promises, President Obama once again demonstrated the rhetorical flair in an attempt to sound populist, if not downright ‘conservative,’ in addressing the very requirements for job creation his administration has ignored for the past year. But, by all accounts, his explanations failed to answer the question on the mind of Americans: ‘When will I get a job?’ Last year, he promised a ‘New Era of Responsibility’ and instead delivered the exact opposite. Now that he’s offering a ‘New Foundation for Prosperity,’ business owners and the unemployed alike have reasons to be worried. There is just no amount of spin and blame shifting that can hide the fact that tonight the President added more zeros to an already burdensome deficit with no explanation as to how he would pay for this ‘new foundation.’ As a good construction worker will tell you – foundations cost money.

"President Obama said he wanted better solutions. Republicans have offered common sense conservative solutions. The people in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts heard our better ideas and voted for them. If the President is serious, he will give Republicans a seat at the table. If not, then we know that this is just more spin, arrogance and a refusal to listen to the American people."

11:25 p.m.: It's more than a little different, but we do appear to have a "You lie!" moment tonight after all. Below, video of Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito apparently mouthing the words "not true" after President Obama the court's recent decision on campaign finance had "reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections."

Of course, when Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouted "You lie!" at the president, he did so loudly, interrupting Obama. This isn't nearly as rude, but it's still a break with precedent; the justices typically stay basically mute and motionless up in the front of the chamber. And given the Wilson incident, Alito will get some attention for this.


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