The State of the Union

Thursday, January 28, 2010

THE BARACK OBAMA who mounted the podium last night for his first State of the Union address is the same man who ascended to the presidency a year ago: even-tempered, intelligent, charismatic. Yet the political rough-and-tumble of his first 12 months in office -- especially the stunning defeat of his party's candidate in the Jan. 19 Massachusetts U.S. Senate election -- has cast his signature health-care initiative into limbo and diminished, at least temporarily, his once dominant stature. His challenge last night was to restore confidence and reassert leadership.

As a result, many Americans were probably listening for a less partisan, more focused and more fiscally responsible approach to their main concerns, the economy and jobs. What Mr. Obama actually provided was a little something for everyone, sometimes conciliatory, sometimes combative, often sounding much like a campaign speech, only longer.

He took "my share of the blame" for "not explaining" health care better, but cast plenty of blame on the administration he replaced for problems he inherited. He boasted that the number of al-Qaeda fighters killed last year was "far more than in 2008." He did not back away from his health-care drive, but neither did he offer a precise route to adopting legislation. He reiterated his support for Democratic financial reform and climate-change legislation, but offered an olive branch of support for Republican-favored nuclear power and offshore drilling.

Similarly, he proposed tax cuts for small businesses hiring new workers, along with small-bore proposals to help the middle class: increased tax credits for child and dependent care, expanded retirement accounts, more generous terms for student-loan repayment. Though not expensive as federal programs go, these would nevertheless add to the deficit. So the president offered countervailing small-bore proposals on that front: a three-year freeze on about 17 percent of the federal budget and more effective disclosure of congressional "earmarks" on the Internet.

He promised to "strengthen our trade relations . . . with key partners like South Korea, Panama and Colombia" but did not commit to seeking ratification of free-trade agreements that are pending with all three. Those agreements would create jobs but are unpopular with some unions and Democratic members of Congress.

Mr. Obama vowed to keep trying to improve "the tone of our politics." And to address what he called "a deficit of trust -- deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years," he endorsed unspecified legislation to circumvent the Supreme Court's ruling allowing unlimited corporate political spending and greater disclosure of lobbyist contacts with the White House and Congress. But in promising to "do our work openly," Mr. Obama did not quite convince that he has a new plan for doing it better.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company