Washington – There was an unexpected poignancy to the moment Wednesday evening. Barack Obama, who once strode across the political landscape as a master of the persuasive arts, found himself needing to prove that mastery all over again.
In a single speech, his task was to: prevent the result of one special Senate election from calling into question his agenda or his power; respond to the discontent that poured forth from and after Massachusetts; re-establish his popular standing; and, in the process, both ignite the left and win back the center.
So, in his State of the Union address, Obama sought to pass a political math test by solving several simultaneous equations. He distanced himself from Wall Street but also reassured the businesses of Main Street. To independents, he insisted he still seeks a Washington that can work across partisan lines, but he also challenged Republicans to end their obstructive ways.
A speech he once hoped to give in celebration of a victory on health care reform became instead a passionate plea to save his policy dream from political oblivion. “By the time I’m finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance,” Obama declared. “Millions will lose it this year. Our deficit will grow. Premiums will go up. Patients will be denied the care they need. Small-business owners will continue to drop coverage altogether. I will not walk away from these Americans. And neither should the people in this chamber.”
Obama interpreted the popular mood less as a revolt against his party or himself than as a reflection of “deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years.” He sought to show that while he had heard the protests, he was not reacting by abruptly changing what he stands for or where he would lead the nation.
His aides insist that there is no new Obama, that his latest populist-sounding economic proposals were foreshadowed by campaign promises. Indeed, his call for both parties “to work through our differences” and to turn away from “the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades” could have come from the Obama of 2004 or 2007.
But yes, aides insisted in briefings before the speech, the president has been tempered by combat. A calm, cerebral man can know when he has to fight.
Obama pledged to spend money to fix the economy now while pushing for longer-term efforts to cut the deficit. He continued to strike a populist tone in calling for tougher rules on the banks and for rolling back a Supreme Court decision vastly expanding the influence of corporations in electoral politics. “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests,” he declared, “or worse, by foreign entities.”
At the same time, Obama sought to grapple with public unhappiness over the economy, a particularly strong sentiment among working-class voters who have most felt the lash of hard times. It was clear that if Obama did nothing else, he would identify himself with the word “jobs,” and shout his determination to bring them back.
It was also obvious that he realizes his administration lost two crucial battles last year: to define his stimulus plan and his health care proposal. Polls show that Republicans’ negative claims have stuck with voters, while the administration’s arguments for the merits of both have not.
On Wednesday, Obama made the case for his ideas again, but he also challenged the Republicans to do more than criticize. “We’re going to give them another chance to become part of this government,” one of the president’s top advisers said at a briefing before the speech. Democrats are determined to highlight the GOP’s role in creating Washington’s sour atmosphere, and to press them for alternative ideas. “We will not allow the next 10 months to become a referendum on Barack Obama,” the aide said.
Obama had once hoped to be a conciliatory president who heard his critics and his philosophical adversaries. He is still that man. But it was clear that the Obama who addressed the nation on Wednesday understood that he confronts a Republican Party that sees unflinching opposition as blazing a path to victory. We heard a president ready to do battle, and determined to win.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
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