By Anne E. Kornblut and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 28, 2010; A01
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.
On health-care reform, the signature domestic issue of his first year, Obama pleaded for a new sense of bipartisan cooperation "as temperatures cool" to save legislation that stalled earlier this month.
The president accepted blame for its slow movement, saying that it is a "complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people."
But even as he sought input from his adversaries and acknowledged a failed process that has "left most Americans wondering what's in it for them," Obama did not spell out a specific road map or a timeline for congressional action.
"By the time I'm finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance. Millions will lose it this year," he said. "Our deficit will grow. Premiums will go up. Co-pays will go up. Patients will be denied the care they need. Small-business owners will continue to drop coverage altogether. I will not walk away from these Americans. And neither should the people in this chamber."
Obama laid out specific business initiatives in his speech, all linked by their connection to job-creation. Among his proposals: extending bonus depreciation, which allows companies to recover the costs of capital expenditures at an accelerated pace, amounting to what White House aides said was a 10 percent corporate tax reduction over the next two years.
As expected, Obama proposed a three-year freeze on discretionary spending and promised to let tax cuts on wealthy individuals expire. And he said he will issue an executive order creating a deficit commission to confront the long-term fiscal challenge from Medicare and Social Security.
One week after the Supreme Court loosened the restrictions on corporate contributions to political campaigns, Obama challenged Congress to supersede the decision. "I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities," he said. "They should be decided by the American people, and that's why I'm urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong."A new course
Sitting in a box with the first lady were nearly two dozen guests invited to illustrate pieces of the president's agenda, recent events and examples of inspiration. Missing from the audience were Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, the requisite member of his Cabinet absent in the event of a national emergency, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was attending meetings abroad.
When he turned his attention to foreign policy in the speech, Obama confronted critics such as former vice president Richard B. Cheney, who have accused him of making the country weaker by engaging the nation's enemies and banning torture of terrorism suspects.
"Let's put aside the schoolyard taunts about who is tough," Obama said. "Let's reject the false choice between protecting our people and upholding our values."
The president urged action on energy legislation, linking success to the creation of new jobs. He called for construction of new nuclear power plants, new offshore oil drilling and passage of climate change legislation.
Repeating a commitment he has made to the gay community, Obama vowed to end the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and urged Congress to pass legislation opening the military fully to gay men and lesbians.
"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are," he said.
The president vowed to work with members of Congress to reform schools and revamp the education law known as No Child Left Behind. And he pressed lawmakers to pass student loan legislation that would provide new money for college tuition and community colleges.
Toward the end of the speech, Obama urged action on immigration, saying that work should continue on what he called a "broken" system.
Republicans went into the State of the Union address -- a constitutionally required update to Congress that the president usually delivers each January -- saying they planned to be more courteous to Obama than they were last year, when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted "you lie" at him during a speech. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told his caucus members during a meeting on Wednesday morning that the president "should be treated with respect," Republican aides said.
Newly elected Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell delivered the Republican response from the state's House of Delegates chamber, calling for "results, not rhetoric" and "cooperation, not partisanship." But he also took aim at Obama's agenda, saying that "today, the federal government is simply trying to do too much."
Obama will take his message on the road in the week ahead, with trips to Florida and New Hampshire. He will fly to Tampa on Thursday to announce $8 billion in awards for high-speed rail construction in multiple states.
Staff writers Michael A. Fletcher, Ben Pershing and Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.