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Obama's State of the Union address takes a harder tone

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010; A01

At 9:06 p.m. Wednesday, President Obama entered the House chamber, prompted by the same official introduction he received there one year ago. He walked down the same aisle, shook many of the same hands, stepped to the same lectern and spoke to a national audience plagued by the same feelings of frustration and distress.

But, for Obama, so much had changed.

One year had taken him from a self-professed unifier to a historically divisive president; from the man selected to solve the country's problems to the person often disparaged as their cause. He squinted against the lights and stared hard at the audience for his first State of the Union address, looking a little grayer, a little older than when he assessed the country in the same venue last February. A circus of cameras and power brokers stirred around him, yet he stood alone at a single microphone, quieting the crowd with a series of somber nods.

It had been, Obama told the audience, "one of the most difficult years in our history" -- and it had been one of his most difficult years, too.

The president had plenty of reasons to be frustrated Wednesday night, and he channeled all of them during his 71 minutes at the podium. The poker player so often lauded for his evenness was instead pleading and persistent, frank and angry. His words as much as his body language suggested a shift, that this was the time not only to address the populist aggravation but to make it his own. He pressed his forefinger against his thumb and made jabs at the air to accentuate his points. He told the crowd that he "hated" the bank bailout, that he wanted the government to match the public's "decency," that he was tired of "the numbing weight of our politics."

"How long should we wait?" he asked. "How long should America put its future on hold?"

It was the 487th time Obama delivered public remarks as president, but this one felt unique. When Obama took office, his advisers vowed to take advantage of his gifts as an orator, so in his first year he spoke in 30 states and 21 countries, at factories, fundraisers and funerals. But none of his speeches, aides said, had been so meticulously prepared as the one he delivered Wednesday night.

Obama's staff began meeting about the State of the Union in early December, a process run by senior adviser David Axelrod, speechwriter Jon Favreau and policy adviser Mona Sutphen. More than 20 government agencies recommended policy items for inclusion in the speech, aides said, and each line passed through half a dozen edits, a fact-check and a review by a team of lawyers. Favreau and speechwriter Ben Rhodes synthesized the material into a cohesive draft and gave it to Obama earlier this month.

It was, in many ways, the exact opposite of the speechwriting process that resulted in some of Obama's most memorable moments during his campaign for the presidency. He wrote a much-lauded speech about race during three days in March 2008, with minimal input from aides; he worked alongside Favreau to craft speeches rich in ideology and unburdened by procedural minutiae. In order to take this State of the Union address and make it his own, aides said, Obama stuck to a routine that dominated his week: editing alone in the residence each night, making changes with advisers in the Oval Office each morning and practicing his delivery during the day.

On Wednesday afternoon, as lawmakers lined up outside the House chamber and jostled for the best seats, Obama cleared his schedule and sequestered himself inside the White House. He made last-minute tweaks to the speech, as has been his habit. Then he practiced his delivery using a teleprompter while a handful of senior advisers watched. He finally left the White House at 8:40 p.m., walking 10 steps into a limousine, riding six minutes to the Capitol and waiting 15 more minutes in a holding room before entering the chamber to a standing ovation.

He saw the State of the Union as his chance to turn momentum back in his favor after what he described as the roughest stretch of his presidency, aides said. The past 10 days had been tantamount to running into "a bit of a buzz saw," Obama said in public remarks No. 483 as No. 487 neared. His prized health-care legislation was suddenly in peril. Unemployment was at its highest level in 25 years.

Skepticism was on the rise, too. Last week, in a White House briefing, a reporter asked press secretary Robert Gibbs: "Is the president worried that his legacy could be dead, more than anything else, in these discussions?"

Gibbs: "No."

Reporter: "No?"

Gibbs: "No."

For his part, Obama has acted as if acutely aware of his dilemma. He held no public events over the weekend, working on the speech and taking breaks to play basketball with his daughters and watch football games. He was given a custom-made football helmet on a tour of the Riddell sporting goods factory in Ohio last week, and he joked that he might wear it for protection during the State of the Union. He then conducted a town hall forum in another factory, wearing no tie and punching his fist in the air with uncharacteristic vigor, saying, more than a dozen times, that he would "fight" for the middle class.

But Obama's most revealing remarks came in a quieter moment, inside a Washington area church on Jan. 17.

"I have a confession to make here," he said. "There are times where I'm not so calm. . . . There are times when progress seems too slow. There are times when the words that are spoken about me hurt. There are times when the barbs sting. There are times when it feels like all these efforts are for naught, and change is so painfully slow in coming, and I have to confront my own doubts."

Ten days later, as he concluded the State of the Union, Obama closed not with a confession but with a resolution:

"We don't quit. I don't quit. Let's seize this moment to start anew."

He stepped away from the podium, shook more of the same hands, walked back up the same aisle and exited the chamber through the same doors as a year before. But this time it was into year number two.

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