WASHINGTON — An embattled Barack Obama sought Wednesday to recapture the sense of hope that propelled him to the White House by insisting he won’t abandon the health-care reform that has vexed his presidency while reassuring downtrodden Americans “I don’t quit” as he works to pull the U.S. out of a crippling recession.
“We have finished a difficult year; we have come through a difficult decade,” the president said in his first state-of-the-union address.
“But a new year has come. A new decade stretches before us. We don’t quit. I don’t quit. Let’s seize this moment — to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our union once more.”
Obama reached out to Americans who are struggling in the face of the lingering recession by assuring them he remains the same force for change and optimism that he was when he won the White House 14 months ago.
“Our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved,” he said.
“But I wake up every day knowing that they are nothing compared to the setbacks that families all across this country have faced this year,” he said, adding that’s what “keeps me fighting.”
He pledged not to give up on health-care reform, and elicited some laughs from Congress when he pointed out it wasn’t exactly “good politics” to take on the issue.
But Obama said when he heard stories from real Americans who can’t afford health insurance or had been denied coverage by their health insurance companies, he had to act.
“I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, this process left most Americans wondering what’s in it for them,” the president said, adding he had personally erred in not explaining health-care reform clearly enough to Americans.
“But I also know this problem is not going away… I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber,” he said to a chorus of cheers.
Obama beseeched Democrats and Republicans alike to work together to give Americans “a government that matches their decency.”
“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,” he said.
“For while the people who sent us here have different backgrounds and different stories and different beliefs, the anxieties they face are the same.”
Obama’s speech was a clear attempt to win back the hearts and minds of Americans who have seemingly lost their enthusiasm for a leader a year after his historic inauguration buoyed their spirits. Indeed, the very populist rage that helped him make it to the White House as the recession began is now working against him as the tough economic times continue.
“I campaigned on the promise of change — change we can believe in, the slogan went. 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,” he said. He assured them he could and he would.
The White House had said for days that the president’s address would focus on jobs as the national unemployment rate hovers at 10 per cent. He didn’t disappoint during his 70-minute address, announcing a Robin Hood-esque job creation bill that will take from the big and give to the small.
The initiative will use US$30 billion of the money that the country’s biggest banks have repaid to the feds “to help community banks give small businesses the credit they need to stay afloat,” he said.
Obama also announced a new small business tax credit and proposed eliminating all capital gains taxes on small business investment, undoubtedly aimed at pleasing the many fiscal conservatives in Congress, both Republican and Democrat.
The president’s public approval ratings have sagged to about 50 per cent in recent weeks, with numerous polls suggesting Americans want the White House to focus on jobs, not health-care reform, the environment or other legislative goals viewed as non-essentials.
Americans are also unimpressed with Obama’s escalation of an unpopular and grossly expensive war in Afghanistan. In addition, his young presidency has been marred by the recent series of communication falldowns among U.S. intelligence agencies that almost resulted in an al Qaida operative blowing a Detroit-bound jetliner out of the sky on Christmas Day.
And his cherished health-care overhaul is also on life support following the election last week of a Republican to the late Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat. Scott Brown’s stunning win in a Democratic stronghold — Kennedy held the seat for almost half a century — essentially gives the Republicans enough senators to grind Obama’s legislative agenda to a screeching halt.
As he did so often on the campaign trail in the lead-up to his historic election, Obama once again urged Washington to change the way it does business. He railed against politicians who vote against every bill “just because they can,” and took particular aim at the lobbyists who loom so large over the political process on Capitol Hill.
“We face more than a deficit of dollars right now. We face a deficit of trust — deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years,” he said.
“To close that credibility gap we must take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to end the outsized influence of lobbyists; to do our work openly; and to give our people the government they deserve.”
He urged Congress to pass a law that would prevent lobbyists from wielding even more power in the wake of a recent Supreme Court decision to roll back limits on corporate spending on political campaigns.
Democrats boisterously cheered on their president during the state of the union, an annual address mandated by the U.S. Constitution that’s rich in history, pomp and circumstance. This year an array of guests were in attendance, ranging from the Haitian ambassador to returning Iraq war veterans and a Florida woman denied health insurance.
But despite the partisan cheerleading, these are troubled times for Democrats.
In the hours leading up to the state of the union, there were reports of open hostilities among Democrats and tensions between Obama and Democratic leaders due to their seemingly doomed efforts to reform America’s troubled health-care system.
Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, is reportedly irked by Obama’s reluctance last summer to actively promote health-care reform.
Relations between House and Senate Democrats have also soured.
Jim Clyburn, a top House Democrat and an ally of Pelosi’s, took shots at the Senate on Fox radio, calling it the “House of Lords” and saying senators were out of touch with Americans. Senators only face election every six years, compared to two years for House representatives.
Republicans, meantime, were on their best behaviour on Wednesday, with nary a boo heard during Obama’s address.
House minority leader John Boehner, apparently keen to avoid another embarrassment for the party that resulted after lawmaker Joe Wilson shouted “you lie” during Obama’s summer address to Congress, reportedly urged party members to show some decorum.
Obama was reportedly working on the state of the union until the 11th hour, tweaking it shortly before he and his wife, Michelle, made their way to Capitol Hill in a presidential motorcade from the White House.
In addition to appealing to Americans who are now wary about him, Obama listed his accomplishments, including the financial industry bailout that he said saved countless jobs and the fact that he hasn’t raised taxes. He also announced he would soon rescind the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring gays from serving.
On Thursday, the president will kick off the traditional post-state of the union tour and travel to Florida with Vice-President Joe Biden. In Tampa, they’ll announce a US$8-billion cash infusion to build high-speed rail infrastructure in several states.
The money is a “down payment” on the rail system, the White House said, and will go to local governments for distribution. It’s expected to create thousands of jobs.