President Barack Obama delivered his first State of the Union address this evening. Obama's State of the Union was tinged by the victory of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, the overburdened effort for health care reform, and dwindling poll numbers and public confidence.
Nothing in his speech was particularly controversial. Although he did veer to the left (though barely) by refusing to extend tax cuts on oil companies or sky-high incomes, he also couched such statements in a populist tone. In other words, he phrased policies he advocates in a way that would make the Republicans look bad. And they did.
On numerous issues, from the bank bailout to tax cuts to good faith negotiations with Republicans on other issues, Obama provoked the Republicans to applaud issues on which both sides agree. They did not. In fact, they looked cold and stony at times, losing an opportunity to blunt, if not co-opt attempts by the president to find commonality.
Obama, whom some applaud for ad libbing, stuck to the basics. His speaking style used his best qualities, while keeping the overall speech from becoming too austere. It was actually humble. The speech was more accessible and kept at bay Obama's tendency to allow his speeches to become a sermon.
Obama was careful to point out that many of the problems that concern Americans predate his presidency. That underscores the misplacement of some popular anger, but risks accusations of passing the buck.
On the issues, Obama made the right points on spending, taxation, the economy, and the political atmosphere. Obama called on Congress to reduce domestic discretionary spending and promised a veto if that did not happen. He assured that security/defense, Medicare, and Social Security would be untouched, as massive as those budgets are. The mantra of scrutinizing programs is not new, but the veto promise is interesting. If Obama needs to use it (or does) against a Democratic Congress it will benefit the president if not members of Congress.
On taxation, Obama alluded to the expiration of tax cuts on the wealthy, but reiterated that his administration and the stimulus bill cut taxes for Americans, rather than raised them. Both are true. The upper-class tax cuts dating back to the Bush administration will expire as they contained sunset clauses. However, the stimulus package did have its own tax cuts that manifested themselves in reduced income tax withholdings.
As for the economy, also partly a tax issue, Obama announced a proposal to use some repaid bailout money to be invested in community banks to loan money to small businesses. Particularly noteworthy in economy/taxation policy was a call to end capital gains taxes on small businesses and by implications new investment in all businesses that build jobs. Apparently, the latter refers to a credit/deduction on overall capital gains.
Finally, the president began to talk about breaking down the partisan stink that has settled over Washington. He challenged the Republicans to stop playing the obstructionist card, living every day like Election Day, which they have effectively done. He noted the Supreme Court's recent decision that struck down a number of restrictions on campaign spending. By this point, the Republicans got the picture and applauded the President's call for legislation to counteract the free flow of money into elections.
The Republicans responded to Obama's speech with Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia. Speaking in a chamber at the old Virginia State House, that speech was a clear attempt to parallel the President's image in the House chamber. This idea, according to CNN, was not new, however. Both Clinton responding to the GOP presidents of the 1980's and former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman responding to Clinton did the same.
From the beginning, however, McDonnell's speech was looking to make a connection with a certain audience. He talked about his twin sons wanting leave and watch SportsCenter. McDonnell's speech sounded like it was written in the expectation that the President would come off as arrogant and disconnected. Obama did not come across as such.
McDonnell talked about pushing government away, but that neglected the fact that Obama focused on jobs, bailouts and financial reform. Although some of the president's proposals rub up against the GOP mantra of less government, they sync with popular discontent over things like new bonuses for banks that used government to stave off bankruptcy. Ironically, some of McDonnell's best points were on issues that failed to draw applause from Republicans during Obama's speech.
McDonnell, in trashing Obama's call to not give up health care reform, called the American health care system the best in the world, went for innaccurate populist belief and not honesty. America may have some of the best health care facilities and doctors, but our overall system is a patchwork of government, private, and non-profit medical systems that work together inefficiently. Such a statement, offers the best evidence that GOP opposition to health care legislation is actually opposition to any reform.
McDonnell even proudly touted the idea that Virginia might have some new oil drilling platforms off its shores soon. While some new off-shore exploration is reasonable, restrictions on new off-shore oil drilling is not just about bashing the oil companies. Rather, the risk of spills and environmental damage on American shores was a major driver of these modern restrictions.
In the end, McDonnell's speech was one that thrust a rising GOP star center stage. It blunted some of the President's speech, but no more than the average opposition response. Since the President's speech was conciliatory, McDonnell's could not dress Obama down any further unless the Governor of Virginia has the power to remove the President from office. As for being a rising star, because Virginia governors are limited to one term at a time, McDonnell may not be heard from that much in the future. The same might be said of his predecessor Tim Kaine, had the former governor not been appointed Chairman of the National Democratic Committee.
Obama's speech was not perfect. It could have been more concrete at times, but that is tough to do in a State of the Union His call for bipartisanship is familiar and common as is his minimizing his struggle in the face of average Americans' problems. If he is serious about bipartisanship, he needs to keep up the effort to demand action and communication with the other side and not just play lip service to it. If he has to pass legislation by party line votes just because the Republicans refuse to play ball, they will not win races in November.
However, some Republicans may be willing. Although not unique among Republicans' comments on the speech, Senator-elect Scott Brown offered a conciliatory response of his own. Possibly thinking past the huge cash infusions from the national party, Brown could be positioning himself to be more like Olympia Snow politically or at least open to negotiation like Orrin Hatch and Lindsey Graham, however conservative they may be. As CNN's John King noted tonight, Brown will face the electorate in Massachusetts again in 2012, when Obama runs for reelection. If the same Brown that won last month shows up, assuming Obama is in good shape, or if Brown shows up with the National GOP playing ventriloquist to his dummy, then he will not be reelected. *Update, the Boston Globe reports that Scott Brown told Republican leadership that he is "going to vote how I want to vote.”
News sources report that the President will spend more time in the country and by implication less overseas. Obama needs to be tougher and to appear more in touch--not just claim to be. However, he also needs to be more substantive and stay stateside to the exclusion of the most important international efforts like Haiti and nuclear arms.
There is hope, a word that was toxic to some of CNN's focus groups, however. If Obama's intent was to hit the reset button, it might have worked. However, he can only do so if he can keep up this effort and play some hardball. If he fails it will not be to the detriment of his party alone, but the nation as a whole.
*Obama and McDonnell photos from wikipedia. Note, Obama photograph from 2009 Obama speech.