State of the Union

First State of the Union speech by President Obama: 'We face a deficit of trust'

President Barack Obama delivers his first State of the Union Address.
By Anne E. Kornblut and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 28, 2010

President Obama delivered an urgent plea for unity on Wednesday night during his first State of the Union address, seeking to recapture the energy that propelled him into office and to reverse his party's trajectory after a series of recent setbacks.

A year after entering the White House with a broad mandate, Obama reframed his agenda around a single, central mission: continuing the nation's delicate economic recovery. He focused on jobs, casting himself as the advocate of average citizens, and acknowledged that his administration had "some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved."

"But I wake up every day knowing that they are nothing compared to the setbacks that families all across this country have faced this year. And what keeps me going, what keeps me fighting, is that despite all these setbacks, that spirit of determination and optimism -- that fundamental decency that has always been at the core of the American people -- lives on," he said.

Obama did not use the occasion to build momentum for far-reaching new policies, instead calling for Congress to complete the tasks already at hand, including "another look" at health-care reform, funding more education programs, imposing stiffer regulations on Wall Street and pursuing a more ambitious energy policy. He reiterated his demand for a three-year freeze on discretionary government spending, threatening to use his veto to achieve it, and walked through a series of steps his administration hopes to take to aid middle-class families.

Proposing initiatives that contrasted the needs of Wall Street and average citizens -- such as taking $30 billion repaid by big financial firms and turning it over to community banks -- Obama compared, in a populist flourish, the earlier bank bailout to a root canal.

But much of the speech was familiar, and more modest in scope than his addresses over the past year. His most powerful words came at the end as he demanded that Democrats stand firm in defense of their policies despite a recent defeat in a Senate election in Massachusetts.

"I will not give up on changing the tone of our politics. I know it's an election year," Obama said. "And after last week, it is clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual.

"But we still need to govern," he continued. "To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills. And 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, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well."

The 71-minute prime-time address, delivered before hundreds of lawmakers in the Capitol and millions of television viewers nationwide, came at a pivotal moment. With his health-care proposal stalled, his filibuster-proof majority in the Senate gone, his approval ratings sagging, and 62 percent of Americans saying they think the country is on the wrong track, Obama sought to reshape his presidency around issues, particularly job creation, that are of greatest concern to Americans and could yield swift results. A full two-thirds of the speech was devoted to the economy.

'Tired battles'

Even as he returned to his campaign theme of hope, Obama summoned the frustration with government that drove his candidacy in the first place. Disparaging "the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades," he demanded new cooperation from Congress -- on health-care reform, the budget and deficit reduction.

"Let's try common sense," the president said. "Let's invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt. Let's meet our responsibility to the people who sent us here."

He called for "action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue," in the form of curbed lobbyist influence and greater transparency, two hallmarks of his 2008 campaign that aides think have been largely overshadowed since Obama took office.

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