Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech on Wednesday evening was virtually a do-or-die moment for him – what with sliding poll numbers, a defeat in a so-called safe senatorial seat in Massachusetts and growing concern he was ignoring the issues people cared about most. In his bravura performance, he showed again he must be one of the great orators of our generation.
Obama told Americans – and the world – that creating new employment must be the country’s “job number one”. Obama spoke to a joint sitting of both houses of Congress, with the cabinet (minus one in case of a catastrophe), Supreme Court justices and other VIP guests in attendance as well. How much public opinion and Republican opposition will change is, of course, still difficult to establish.
With an adroit pivot away from his perceived policy “wonkiness” and towards the image of a warm and caring national leader, Obama agreed that with 10% unemployment, too many Americans were “hurting” and that an over-stretched middle class needs help in saving enough for retirement, getting its children through university and tackling their burden of caring for the elderly.
Moreover, with some gentle, self-deprecating humour, Obama argued that in pushing so hard for healthcare reform, he was inspired by a desire to get it right for the nation, rather than seeking easy political advantage. In a strong passage, he made the case for the financial bailout package, unpopular though it might be, by saying: “If we had allowed the meltdown of the financial system, unemployment might be double what it is today. More businesses would certainly have closed. More homes would have surely been lost.”
However, Obama also used his speech to chastise the big banks for their selfish, self-interested actions, to push for investment in the technologies that will generate good new jobs such as solar energy and 21st century transportation, and to insist on supporting investment that will help the country improve export-driven growth. Comparing the US to other nations, he called for the US to take up the challenge from other nations. As he said, “Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China’s not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany’s not waiting. India’s not waiting.”
In addition, the president promised to freeze overall government expenses beyond defense, security and entitlement spending (such as Social Security or Medicare for the elderly)in an effort to rein in the government budget to bring down the overall federal deficit.
He also used this moment to criticize bluntly the recent Supreme Court decision that allows corporations to use their funds directly and without limit in American elections. Or, as Obama said, “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities.” Those watching on TV saw the reaction from Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Jr, who shook his head and seemed to mouth the words, “No, it’s not true”. Alito had voted with the 5-4 majority in this ruling. (At numerous other times during this speech, Obama received rousing standing ovations – albeit mostly from Democrats, not Republicans.)
Obama’s first State of the Union message, unlike so many others before it, focused mostly on domestic issues, devoting only a few minutes of its hour-plus length on foreign affairs. He made a special point of asserting that the country, in its dealings abroad, must be true to its basic principles on human rights. He added that the American troop deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan will draw down as planned, and that a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is on track – the US and Russia were completing negotiations on the “farthest-reaching arms control treaty in nearly two decades”.
He also said he was going to do a rethink on the current gays in the military policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. While the generals in attendance didn’t look particularly happy at that moment, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was caught on TV screens applauding enthusiastically.
Obama wound up his first State of the Union speech by calling on Republicans and Democrats, both, to work together in a renewed spirit of bipartisanship for the greater good – adding that if Republicans had good ideas about changes to the health care reform package, they should come forward with them. He ended on a relentlessly positive note, saying: “We don’t quit. I don’t quit. Let’s seize this moment – to start anew, to carry the dream forward and to strengthen our union once more.”
This time around, in the now-usual practice, the response to the State of the Union message came from newly elected Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell who criticized the growth of federal government, asserting it was “simply trying to do too much”. It seems to us, however, that “do less” may ultimately not be a particularly effective rallying cry for Republicans – if they hope to gain real traction for the mid-term election.
By J. Brooks Spector
Main photo: Reuters
WATCH: Pres. Obama’s First State of the Union Address