State of the Obama agenda: uncertain

As usual, President Obama delivers a good speech. But will it advance his ideas on the economy, health care and national security?
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President Obama delivering the State of the Union address. He and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have become political targets for Republicans.

As usual, President Obama delivers a good speech. But will it advance his ideas on the economy, health care and national security?

This is written immediately after President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech, and Virginia Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's official response, and with total avoidance of the usual post-speech spinning by TV talking heads, partisans, and focus-group moderators.

One thing to remember: In 2010, as in every other year, Americans will be focused mainly on two things. These are the state of the economy, and particularly the unemployment rate, and the state of our national security, involving both terrorism and other threats from abroad.

Wednesday night Obama, as he almost always does, delivered a good speech. Whether it will move his agenda forward remains to be seen.

Obama's approval ratings no doubt will rise, in the week ahead, as will ratings of his handling of major issues. Millions saw a well-delivered speech presented by a confident, well-prepared president. He presented himself as a tribune both of change and moderation. Yet, at other times, his message was of raw partisanship, causing Republicans in the chamber to project mostly frosty silence.

Viewers of such speeches make judgments about them not just on the basis of what was said but of what they saw. A few visual images told their own important stories.

  • Rep. Patrick Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, weeping openly as he listened to Obama. Quite clearly, the representative was thinking of his father. It was the first State of the Union in Patrick's life at which his father had not been present.
  • All nine Supreme Court justices sitting stunned and clearly taken aback as Obama attacked the recent 5-4 court decision on campaign-finance laws and pledged congressional action to "correct" the decision. He did not spell out how the correction might take place.
  • Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sitting on their hands in silence as nearby Democratic Senators stood to applaud Obama's pledges to begin U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by July, 2011, and remove all combat troops from Iraq by August of this year. (The Joint Chiefs do not necessarily oppose the withdrawals but are worried to death about setting hard near-term deadlines.)
  • Republican legislators sitting in stony silence as Obama blamed the largest part of federal budget deficits on Bush policies from 2001-8 and suggested Republicans were blocking progress with their partisanship. (Sen. John McCain could be seen and heard telling a seatmate that "he's trying to blame it all on Bush." Republican congressional leaders would tell you that they oppose health-care, cap-and-trade, and other administration initiatives because, in part, they were frozen out of involvement in them throughout 2009).

Here are policy highlights worth noting, in several areas.

Finance and economics

Obama took an obligatory swipe at big banks, to strong bipartisan applause, and reiterated his call for increased fees to be levied against them. He also made the dubious claim that his stimulus package had kept "2 million working who would otherwise have been unemployed." More importantly, though, he got in sync with the American people by asserting that "jobs are the No. 1 focus in 2010."

He said he would generate new spending on jobs, in part, by using $30 billion from the TARP fund (previously utilized for big-bank bailouts) for use by community banks to lend to small business. He also proposed eliminating the capital-gains tax for small business and new small-business tax credits. He proposed fresh infrastructure spending, including that for long-distance, high-speed rail, and tax rebates for homeowners making their homes more energy efficient. In a bow to labor demands, he promised to remove tax breaks for companies "shipping jobs overseas."

Without defining it, he called for "real reform" of the financial system and called on the Congress to act on it. He risked resistance from the liberal Democratic base by calling for construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants, new offshore drilling for gas and oil, and development of "clean coal" (an oxymoron) facilities.

At the heart of what he termed his "middle-class agenda" were proposals to expand the chlld-care tax credit, extend new mortgage relief, and forgive all student-loan debt after 20 years (10 years if the borrower entered public service).

A central and expected proposal was the notion of a "bipartisan fiscal commission," to be created by executive order, to recommend long-term deficit reduction measures. He said he would design it along the lines proposed by Sens. Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg in legislation that failed to gain the necessary 60 Senate votes yesterday.

He also proposed a freeze on federal discretionary spending, beginning in 2011, but with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and defense spending exempted — the vast majority of the budget.

Health care

Obama made a strong plea for enactment of health-care legislation ASAP. He expressed the belief that it had been slowed "because we were guilty of not explaining it clearly." (This is a familiar belief of presidents of all parties. If their initiatives are slowed, they consistently believe their proposals virtuous and that any opposition must be due to communications failures). While seeming aggressive on the issue, Obama signaled a willingness to get Republicans into the closing stages of the legislation's design. "I am open to proposals from either party," he said. An important offer late in the game.


Obama struck what seemed a nationalist note by pledging to "double exports over the next five years." However, he said in the next breath that he hoped to break the logjam in Doha Round of global negotiations on the World Trade Organization and to actively support bilateral trade deals languishing in the Congress.

Beyond reiterating his timetables for Afghan and Iraq pullouts, Obama implied he would get tough on Iran's drive toward a nuclear capability but did not specify his intended actions. He responded to rising criticism in the gay community by pledging to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy adopted by the military during the Clinton administratioon.

Although Obama pledged to get deficits under control, he nonetheless in his speech promised several new spending initiatives for favored purposes. The chances of these spending initiatives — as well as big legislative proposals such as health-care and cap-and-trade bills — are presently in doubt.

In fact, everything not directly connected to economic revival and job creation, and international safety, will have trouble getting congressional and public support in 2010. These are tough times. Voters and taxpayers are worried about their livelihoods and economic futures. They are afraid of a growing public debt bomb. And highly aware of threats from domestic terrorism and the human and financial costs of overseas U.S. interventions.

Going into the speech, most analysts saw the Obama administration as weakened and unlikely to achieve any big legislative objective in the year ahead. Obama, with a characteristically well delivered speech, recaptured political initiative and got his agenda back on the table. Whether it stays there, or moves ahead, remains in doubt.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of