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.