Capitol Hill is a wild, rowdy beast, and a president either rides it or gets bucked out of town. President Obama has learned that lesson the hard way over the past 12 months, and the question that loomed largest as he strode into Congress for his first State of the Union address was this: Can he regain control of the Beltway’s always fractious debate—or will the “ways of Washington” tear him down?
As has been the case at several high-stakes moments in his political career, Obama rose to the rhetorical task. He laid a heavy guilt trip on the beltway stalwarts who have “for years” stopped progressive change. “We face a deficit of trust—deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works,” he said. “To close that credibility gap, we must take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue … to give our people the government they deserve.”
Obama then ticked off a long list of ideas—from community college reform to new trade agreements overseas—designed to boost the competitiveness of the American economy, but also to win the approval of his audience of Republicans, Democrats and ordinary Americans. While some of these policies—such as the move to freeze non-military discretionary spending after 2011, or directly challenge the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on corporations and campaigns—are controversial, Obama understood that the State of the Union is the rare speech in which policy details matter far less than tone. Indeed, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi noted just after the address concluded: “Good policy is probably good politics, but the fact is that what's important is what it means to the American people.”
So Obama wisely doled out a heap of feel-your-pain empathy, waved the American flag of resilience in the face of hard times, and bashed the banks regularly. He “set the record straight” on just who got the United States deep into debt, and also took responsibility for some of the confusion that has reined in the debate on health care. He also mixed in enough humor to afford himself an occasion to flash that million-dollar smile.
His performance, roundly praised by colleagues in the House and Senate, was critical in a moment in which progressives are disheartened by Obama’s dip in popularity and a crushing electoral defeat in Massachusetts. With November elections just around the corner, congressional Democrats are feeling hounded, and their leadership is openly divided. Republicans are emboldened by the success of their party-of-no strategy. And voters are in a throw-the-bums-out kind of mood—62 percent say the nation is headed in the wrong direction. In the House of Representatives, “We were frustrated and wondering,” says Keith Ellison, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus from Minnesota. “The circumstances that we’re in are difficult, and we were looking for him to shoot some light back into the moment. I think he did a good job of that.”
Democrats, not surprisingly, seemed buoyed by the speech. “I will get behind him,” House majority whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina said. “The American people will get behind him.” But Obama also managed to entice once-recalcitrant Republicans into ovations and applause for the policies he outlined. It didn’t hurt that he dangled GOP-friendly lines like “we cut taxes” and “the true engine of job creation in this country will always be businesses.” At one point, he had House minority whip Eric Cantor and minority leader John Boehner stomping their feet about education, and Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, who had been potential swing votes during the debate on health care reform, nodding along to his controversial spending freeze. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a centrist Democrat who has also been important to health care negotiations, was pleased with the president’s outreach on these and other issues. “I’d have been surprised if they hadn’t applauded,” he said later.
Obama’s call to the GOP was simple: “We need to govern.” Distasteful as such outreach may be to liberals who feel the president has wasted time and energy on Republican overtures, this may have been the most important step of the night. For the first year of Obama’s tenure, Republicans have been able to pretend they don’t have a say in government. Republicans have voted against climate change legislation, credit card reform and the 2010 budget. GOP Chairman Michael Steele was thrilled about the “goose egg,” or zero votes, that the House GOP handed Obama’s stimulus package last winter. They opposed the House financial regulatory reform bill by a vote of 175 to 0.
This strategy of total, nihilistic obstructionism was Beltway politics 101. By opposing the president, down to the last representative, on everything from the stimulus package to the health care bill, they’ve gummed up the works and left voters angry at the entire Congress—which is, of course, run by Democrats.
But Obama, still under the guise of calling for bipartisanship, also effectively scolded the GOP at times, for waging irresponsible wars, denying climate change and now, their naysaying legislative strategy. “Just saying no to everything may be good short term politics, but it’s not leadership,” Obama declared. “We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.”
But there’s ample evidence that the opposite’s true—voters are annoyed that Obama has done too little in the year since his election. In a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, 74 percent of respondents said “not enough” has been done to regulate Wall Street. Similarly, an AFL-CIO poll in Massachusetts found that 47 percent of Democrats said their biggest concern about the party is “they haven't succeeded in making needed change.” Even those who voted for triumphant Senator-elect Brown were more concerned about the absence of change (50 percent) than the speed at which it’s happening (43 percent).
As always, ideology and the details of policy are less important to American voters than having a clear and forceful leader. Heck, we’ll follow George W. Bush into war based on a thin lie, as long as it’s articulated clearly and advanced forcefully. Above all else, candidate Obama promised that kind of leadership, and a lot of folks—including Congress—were waiting for it to emerge in President Obama.
He reared up to offer it, rhetorically at least. And he focused on the singular issue that will define his presidency: the seven million jobs we’ve lost since he took office. Obama struck early and hard at Wall Street by professing that he “hated” the September 2008 financial industry bailout and championing his tax on big banks as way to fund help for Main Street. “I know Wall Street isn’t keen on this idea,” he said, “but if these firms can afford to hand out big bonuses, they can afford to repay the taxpayers who rescued them in their time of need.”
He demanded passage of the large jobs bill many Democrats are calling for and which the House has already passed. Taking an eerily familiar page from the health care debate, Obama left the details alone, endorsing only the big idea. “I want a jobs bill on my desk immediately,” he said. On health care, he also made demands without specifics: “Do not walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close.” The call to arms, again, gave both sides of the aisle the spine to stand and applaud.
Will this speech change Washington? Probably not. Will it get the Democrats through a tough election year? That remains to be seen. For all of his rhetoric about changing the tone, Obama is going to have to fight some ugly, old-school battles in 2010. They’ll either be with Republicans or with his own party—likely both. If he wants his legacy to include more than a series of great political speeches, he’d better be ready to flex his political muscle as well.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.