President Obama’s State of the Union Address: In Defense of His Administration

In his first State of the Union address, Barack Obama delivered a confident defense of his administration’s first year, and laid out an agenda that he hopes will unify his party and rally public support. While accepting responsibility for not explaining health reform and other parts of his program more clearly, he did not apologize for the ambitious scope of his efforts.

The president’s demeanor was firm, occasionally feisty, but consistently civil. There has been considerable speculation about his turn toward “populism,” but rhetorically there was little evidence of that in his remarks tonight. And he returned—emphatically—to one of the core themes of his presidential campaign—the people’s weariness with unending partisanship and the permanent campaign. He will, he said, keep trying to change the tone of our politics. The alternative, he declared, is the continuation of what he called a “deficit of trust”—the people’s belief that our political system is too out of touch, unresponsive, ineffective, and beholden to lobbyists and special interests—that it cannot serve the public interest.

Substantively, as expected, Mr. Obama focused on economic recovery, job creation, and measures to relieve pressure on middle-class families. Although he proposed some modest measures to create jobs in the short term, his emphasis was on building a “new foundation” for long-term economic growth, with financial reform, investment in research and education, export promotion, and targeted tax breaks for middle class families.

Resolving a debate within his administration and, he no doubt hopes, within his party, Obama strongly defended the comprehensive health care reform bill whose passage the Massachusetts senate race threw into doubt. He described the concrete benefits it would provide and insisted that it was a vast improvement over the status quo. Vowing not to walk away from Americans who need health reform, he asked members of Congress to find a way to come together and get the job done.

There was less suspense surrounding his discussion of government spending and the federal budget deficit. As previously disclosed, he called for a three-year freeze on domestic discretionary spending, which he pledged to enforce through the veto if necessary, and for the restoration of the pay-as-you-go budget rule. He said that he would terminate the Bush tax cuts for families with annual incomes in excess of $250,000. And he endorsed the bipartisan fiscal commission advocated by Democrat Kent Conrad and Republican Judd Gregg but rejected by the Senate, promising to establish a similar commission by executive order.

Nor were there any surprises in the concluding section of the speech dealing with national security. The president reiterated existing policies on Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and global health and development.

On the whole, the speech was workmanlike and comprehensive, but less than memorable. While not quite a laundry list, its thematic and narrative thrust was not prominent, and its length may have diminished its force somewhat. While the president downplayed items such as cap-and-trade legislation and immigration reform, his 2010 agenda can hardly be described as parsimonious.

It remains to be seen whether the speech will achieve its principal political objectives—namely, rallying Democrats, stemming the exodus of independents from the president’s coalition, and regaining the people’s trust and confidence. While the president expressed his understanding of the hard times so many families are now enduring, no doubt some will be disappointed that he had relatively little to say about short-term jobs programs, and almost nothing about the housing downturn that threatens a continuing wave of foreclosures.

While he invoked the never-say-die grit of the American people, which has carried us through so many hard times in the past, it is not clear that what he offered will be enough to restore our spirits right now. One thing is clear: while the political situation he faces has dramatically changed over the past year, his ambition to be a transformational president has not.