Obama pivots to jobs, but stays his course
In his first State of the Union address, President Obama last night did the right thing — he put economic stability and growth at the top of his agenda. Now it's time for the president and Congress to deliver, election year or not.
The bar was set high, even for an orator as skilled as Obama. The address followed months of divisive political bickering that has cut deeply into his popularity and threatened his ambitious goals. He spoke with characteristic strength and confidence. But talking isn't doing, and there are plenty of unfulfilled promises on the table.
If the president and the Democrats are to reclaim any of the credibility they have lost as competent leaders, Americans have the right to expect swift action, especially on these brass-tacks pledges to goad the economy into a recovery that produces jobs.
The president made the imperative for a jobs bill his top priority during the speech, and laid out several elements he'd like to see, with a particular focus on small-business incentives that drew bipartisan applause.
Nonetheless, Obama made it plain he wasn't yielding on other goals that have divided Congress and the country. Health care reform, he said, is still essential to economic security. He needed to connect these concepts, and he did so succinctly using anecdotes of Americans whose job losses mean they can't pay crushing medical bills that force many into bankruptcy. "I would not walk away from these Americans," he said, "and neither should the people in this chamber."
He did not outline specifically how the initiative should be resurrected, even though he urged lawmakers to reconsider the bills that cleared each house late last year. Obama gave Congress the correct signals: He will be open to other health-care reform proposals, but he won't surrender to just-say-no demagogues.
Throughout the address, the president defended his program without appearing defensive. He outlined the crucial role of the bank bailout begun under the Bush administration and the stimulus bill Congress enacted on his watch — both programs that have drawn criticism, but both, he said, responsible for staving off worse disaster.
He asserted that his clean energy initiatives are needed to put America in front of a new global economic sector, but he signaled willingness to embrace development of nuclear and fossil fuels as well, a point that drew applause from the GOP.
The Republicans' lukewarm support for Obama's plans to partially freeze spending to attack the massive budget deficit — GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia called it "a laudable step, but a small one" — suggests that hope for constructive work in Washington isn't dead, even if the Republicans on Capitol Hill refused to sign on with a bipartisan commission to tackle the deficit.
Obama said he would establish the deficit panel by executive order, which is exactly the right impulse. America needs to see its president determined to lead, and not quailing before polls and politics.