WASHINGTON-In a tone that swayed from conciliatory to chastising, President Barack Obama's first State of the Union address Wednesday night contained one response to his uneven first year in the White House:
"I don't quit," Obama said before a House chamber crammed with Washington's top policymakers.
In a speech heavy on rhetoric but light on specifics, Obama admitted that "our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved. We have finished a difficult year."
But Obama then tried to cast aside his own political party's problems by reaching out to a middle-class America facing its own strife. He unveiled a new focus in a 70-minute speech designed to restyle his agenda after a tumultuous first year.
"It begins with our economy," Obama said. "That is why jobs must be our number one focus in 2010."
With the economic focus in place, Obama decided against beginning his address with healthcare reform-last year's top issue. Instead, he repeatedly spoke about small businesses-at least verbally supporting ideas that even brought Republicans to their feet: tax cuts and tax credits.
But his rhetoric didn't stop there. The president pitched an ambitious wish list of financial, educational, trade, and energy reform-most of it aimed at recapturing independent voters who brought him to power in 2008 but who have lately been voting Republican.
He pitched the idea of a new bipartisan panel to investigate ways to slow down the annual deficit, which is projected to hit $1.4 trillion this year-its highest level since World War II. But the Senate, in a bipartisan vote the day before Obama's speech, had already voted down such a proposal.
The president also proposed a three-year freeze on domestic spending programs. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sitting behind Obama during the speech, had hours earlier already signaled that she could not get behind an Obama spending freeze that excluded national security programs.
Speaking before supporters from the historic House of Delegates chamber at the state Capitol in Richmond, Va., new Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, giving the Republican response, called the proposed freeze a laudable but small step.
"The circumstances of our time demand that we reconsider and restore the proper limited role of government at every level," said McDonnell, who went on to question the weight behind Obama's words. "We want results not rhetoric. We want cooperation not partisanship."
Obama did his own chastising during his speech. Casting a wide blame net, Obama:
- Called out the Senate for failing to pass several House bills, to which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid responded with an apologetic shoulder shrug.
- Reprimanded the Supreme Court for its recent decision to ease restrictions on campaign fundraising, to which Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito shook his head and mouthed the words "not true."
- Lectured Republicans that "just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership."
The president also claimed that many of the nation's fiscal problems occurred "before I walked in the door" even as, later in the speech, he professed that he is "not interested in re-litigating the past."
Lastly, Obama took on all of Washington for its partisan pettiness: "What frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades, it's time for something new. Let's try common sense."
Playing both good cop and bad cop, the president, after lecturing his audience, then presented the olive branch of bipartisanship: offering to start monthly meetings with Republican leadership.
"I know you can't wait," he joked.
In a speech peppered with the stories of the struggles of average Americans living in small towns from Pennsylvania to Florida, Obama treaded lightly on value issues: the word abortion, healthcare reform's lightening rod, was never mentioned. But Obama did insert one line vowing to end the "don't ask, don't tell" U.S. military policy concerning homosexuals. That got an uproarious applause from Democrats but a quick condemnation from conservative groups.
"The timing of the president's call in the midst of two wars shows that he is willing to jeopardize our nation's security to advance the agenda of the radical homosexual lobby," warned Family Research Council president Tony Perkins.
While buried in his speech, Obama did not totally raise the white flag on healthcare. Instead, he called on Congress to "finish the job."
"By now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on healthcare because it was good politics," Obama said. But yet again the president was light on specifics, focusing instead on elements of healthcare with broad bipartisan support: eliminating pre-existing condition exclusions, ending childhood obesity, and the importance of competitive insurance markets.
Still, these annual speeches are more about the rhetorical vibe then their nut-and-bolt polices. Rarely does a Congress take the president's pronouncements as their legislative marching orders for the year (like his predecessor, Obama unveiled a new fancy sounding initiative-this one called the National Export Initiative-and again made the annual calls for lobbying and earmark reforms that are then largely ignored by lawmakers).
Obama left last year's historic inauguration with a stratospheric 80 percent approval rating. But he entered the cavernous House chamber Wednesday night with only 46 percent approval.
To reverse that trend, the president tried to tap back into his campaign mojo in order to transform the American people's current anger and frustration back into their 2008 feelings of hope and change.
In the end, Obama's first State of the Union did bolster his 2008 reputation as an elegant speaker. But it also continued his 2009 trend of being light with legislative specifics.
In condemning politics as usual in Washington, Obama ironically gave one of the first campaign speeches of the 2010 mid-term elections.