President Obama delivered a State of the Union address that was very different than the one he was planning on giving just a few weeks ago.
The State of the Union was supposed to be a victory speech for health care. It was supposed to showcase lower unemployment numbers, and a stronger national defense effort, buttressed by his recent shift of troops to Afghanistan.
Instead, the speech was an omnibus apology by President Obama on his failure to accomplish anything.
"We face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope – what they deserve – is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics," said Obama.
No actual apology was made, of course. But it was clear by the tone of his voice, and the frequent references to agenda items that were unlikely to be accomplished, that there was little room for optimism.
The issue in the speech most demonstrative of his apologetic approach was, of course, health care. All Obama said on the issue was a somewhat timid reminder that people should "take a second look" at an effort which even Democrats think will probably be futile. He said he didn't take on the issue to make friends, and then quickly recognized his wife for her "healthy kids" initiative. The brevity of his remarks health care demonstrated a further resignation to failure; the issue dominated his schedule just a few weeks ago.
Instead, the Obama talked about jobs – a key political action item for the 2010 mid-terms, and his own re-election in 2012. He honed in on a “jobs bill” that ostensibly pushed small business investment, infrastructure, and manufacturing, with an emphasis on “green jobs.” It would potentially use the remainder of the $700 billion that hasn’t been used for the financial bailout program.
Scott Hodge, the president of the Tax Foundation, said using that money for a jobs bill was exactly opposite of the approach the President should have taken towards decreasing unemployment.
"The most harmful taxes for economic growth are high corporate taxes, and high personal income taxes. The U.S. has the second highest corporate tax rate in the world," said Hodge. "He's acting contrary to what the real current wisdom is to not only foster, but sustain long term economic growth."
Obama’s other big push was for a “spending freeze,” which critics have viewed as throwing ice cubes at a forest fire. The freeze would be a partial, 3-year cut in “discretionary spending” – less than 1 percent of the federal budget. This has received widespread criticism, such as that launched by Sen. Cathy McMorris-Rogers, (R-Wa.), who said that the focus of cutting spending was off-base.
“We need to get serious about entitlement reform, in addition to just balancing the budget,” she said.
One item that has garnered bipartisan support was increased bank regulations that he said would end the “too big to fail” phenomenon, reign in profits from financial institutions that have accepted federal bail out money, and increase the amount of information that consumers get from financial institutions. These regulations have largely been viewed favorably by the right and left.
Obama also dealt – in veiled references – to the blow Democrats had suffered after the special Massachusetts Senate election. Unfortunately, words cannot fix the terminal blow Scott Brown’s win dealt to the Democrats’ 60-vote supermajority.
"We have finished a difficult year. We have finished a difficult decade. But it's a new year. Let's start anew," he said.