ANALYSIS: Humbled Obama checks boxes

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 | 10:25 p.m. CST; updated 8:40 a.m. CST, Thursday, January 28, 2010

WASHINGTON — Humility. Check.

Bipartisanship, debt reduction, populist anger. Check. Check. Check.

More jobs? On it.

President Barack Obama checked every political box needed to restart his troubled presidency Wednesday night, but that may not be enough to consider his State of the Union address a success.

Did he strengthen his connection with the American public? Or did he sound like a politician with a stack of prescriptions for his political ills?

At his best, Obama rekindled his campaign 2008 message of hope and resilience, with a dash of what he's not known for: contrition.

"I campaigned on the promise of change — change we can believe in, the slogan went," he said. "And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change — or at least, that I can deliver it."

A steady decline in Obama's approval ratings along with a stunning election rebuke last week — populist Republican Scott Brown captured Ted Kennedy's Senate seat from Massachusetts — convinced Obama it was time to change course.

The president used his prime-time address to essentially concede that he had failed to communicate his empathy for hard-luck Americans.

And so he said of Americans battered by the economy: "Change has not come fast enough."

Of the bank bailout program: "I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal."

And of the health care debate: "I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people."

Obama message Wednesday night: I hear you.

He opened the next critical stage of his presidency by covering many of the same bases former President Clinton touched a few months after his presidency was rocked by the 1994 midterm elections. In his 1995 State of the Union address, standing before a Congress suddenly in GOP hands, Clinton vowed to shrink government, keep the economy growing and help the middle class. He urged an end to "partisanship, pettiness and anger."

This is how it broke down for Obama:

  • Small government. The nation's debt stands at more than $12 trillion, a fiscal hole that many voters lay at Obama's feet even thought he inherited much of it. Obama's answer: A three-year spending freeze that would apply to only about one-sixth of overall spending. He pledged to create a task force to recommend politically tough actions to reduce the debt.
  • Good government. A year ago, Obama promised to bring sweeping change to Washington but bent his own anti-lobbying rules, cut deals for votes and became one of the nation's most polarizing presidents. Obama's response: He renewed his plea to "overcome the numbing weight of our politics" and fix Washington.
  • Populism. Independent voters have swung away from Obama largely because of their frustrations over financial bailouts sponsored by the Bush and Obama administrations. A CNN poll found that by a 2-to-1 margin voters thought Obama had paid more attention to the problems of banks than the problems of the middle class. Obama answered by underscoring his proposal to levy a fee on big banks. He unveiled plans to give community banks $30 billion in money Wall Street banks have repaid the government.
  • More jobs. While Obama has devoted much of his time and political capital to keep the economy afloat, the public's attention has been drawn to the lengthy, messy drive in Congress to pass health care legislation. That has raised the question, Does he care about the issues that matter to me? Only 39 percent of voters believe he has the right goals, according to the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll.

That may be why he was, at times Wednesday night, as empathetic as Clinton. He spoke of economic "devastation" and the "anguish" of working-class Americans. "I know the anxieties that are out there right now," he said. "They are not new."

The last phrase was a reference to economic woes he inherited from Republican President George W. Bush. Obama pointed back at Bush — a subtle passing of the buck — at least a half-dozen times.

And yet he addressed head-on the criticism that the Obama administration has not lived up to its hype and hope.

Winding up the address, Obama noted the public's lack of faith in U.S. institutions — including corporations, the media and the government — and said the cynicism gets worse every time a CEO cashes in, a banker takes a selfish risk, a lobbyist games the system and "politicians tear each other down instead of lifting this country up."

"No wonder," he said, "there is so much disappointment."

He is disappointed, too, Obama said.

"But remember this — I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone," Obama said. "Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That's just how it is."

How can it become?

That is the question Obama and members of Congress will answer in the months ahead. And, in fall elections, voters will decide whether Obama and his fellow Democrats got more done than checking boxes.


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eye doctor January 28, 2010 | 9:42 a.m.
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Frank Bier January 28, 2010 | 9:52 a.m.
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Mark Foecking January 28, 2010 | 10:31 a.m.

eye doctor wrote:

"Until we close down the huge amount of imports and buy American this country is doomed"

Many Americans choose not to buy goods made here because of the price. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is cost of manufacturing. Labor, physical plant and environmental regulations make our products uncompetitive with those made in countries with low cost labor and few regulations. But would we accept low wages, poor safety and pollution to bring more manufacturing back to the US?

We've typically compensated by using cheap energy to manufacture products with less human labor. When energy becomes more expensive, we will be again less competitive. However, costs of importing goods will rise, so that may balance out somewhat.

Since the '70s, there has been a huge disconnect between the products we enjoy and our acceptance of the means by which they are produced. We feel we can use more and more energy, or food, or other goods, but we don't want to deal with the unpleasant aspects of their production. (pollution, low wages, etc.) As long as we've had less developed nations that would accept those unpleasant aspects in return for their own eeconomic development, we could have our cake and eat it too. We'll run out of these nations one day, and the resulting increase in price and decrease in selection of goods will not make us a nation of happy campers.

However, we'll be forced back to a more sustainable, smaller economy. I'm not sure this will be a bad thing.


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Frank Bier January 28, 2010 | 1:16 p.m.
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Ray Shapiro January 28, 2010 | 1:25 p.m.

("DAVID KORTEN: Well, I mean, one of the interesting examples is the data that shows that people who shop in a farmers’ market have ten times the number of conversations of people who shop in a supermarket. And, you know, I know that from when I lived here in New York on Union Square and I did most of my grocery shopping at the farmers’ market. And, yeah, you meet people, and you talk, and you meet your neighbors, and you get acquainted with the farmer that grows your produce and so forth. And this is all about building relationships. And, you know, we have so monetized the economy, and a part of that process is monetizing relationships. And it diminishes our very humanity.")

("The Speech President Obama Should Deliver… But Won't
by David Korten
Like a healthy ecosystem, a healthy twenty-first-century economy must have strong local roots and maximize the beneficial capture, storage, sharing, and use of local energy, water, and mineral resources. That is what we must seek to achieve, community by community, all across this nation, by unleashing the creative energies of our people and our local governments, businesses, and civic organizations.

Previous administrations favored Wall Street, but the policies of this administration henceforth will favor the people and businesses of Main Street-people who are working to rebuild our local communities, restore the middle class, and bring our natural environment back to health.")
source and more:

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