The State of The Obama Presidency
January 28, 2010

By Joe Rothstein

Some notes and thoughts this night of President Obama’s first State of the Union speech.


A year ago the nation’s economic system was far more desperate than it is today. But the people were more hopeful. Turn that thought around. Today the economic situation is vastly improved, but the people are more despairing.

What happened to hope and trust? Can it be recovered?


Mixed signals tonight from the House and Senate members gathered to hear the President. Inside the House chamber, not evident to the TV audience, clucks and catcalls bubble up from the Republican side of the aisle with some frequency during the speech. Not “you lie,” but audible and churlish. These folks don’t appear to be buying the bi-partisanship the President is trying to sell.

More evidence. Republicans largely sit on their hands and cans during most of the President’s applause lines. Even when he celebrates tax cuts. Even when he urges an increase in taxes on big banks to pay for the bailouts—which you’d think would be popular given the public’s pitchfork level anger at the big banks. Even when the President proposes to eliminate capital gains taxes on small business—a long cherished GOP goal.

But…..the Republicans are on their feet when the President exhorts Congress not to give up on health reform. Since congressional Republicans so far have been locked in a death grip to derail health reform, how do you explain that? A promising omen?


Other thoughts:

The President’s words were direct and powerful, his delivery masterful. But you don’t talk a stuck truck out of the muck and mire, and a good speech is not likely to move his agenda. It’s frustrating and embarrassing that Democrats haven’t been able to enact the big stuff with their big Senate and House majorities. What will change this year? More direct presidential involvement in negotiations? Harry Reid stepping down as Senate leader to focus on his reelection campaign and yielding the post to Dick Durbin, a much tougher cookie?

In 2009 the President and the Democrats managed to get stem cell research back on track, strike a blow for equal pay for women, place a strong new advocate on the Supreme Court, kick start some major initiatives in education and green energy, restore America’s leadership role in the world, vastly improve openness and transparency of government operations and government records, all while staving off a second great economic depression.

Not a bad year’s work, but hardly any of it has generated thank you notes from the public. Instead, public trust and confidence continued to ooze from what should have been a winning team. And this team wasn’t playing the Yankees. The Republican answer to most everything was “no.” When it wasn’t “no” the Republican alternative was an evil twin to the Bush policies of tax cuts and rampant deregulation that resulted in huge deficits and economic collapse.

As the President correctly pointed out, he inherited a $10 trillion deficit before he walked through the door of the White House, the legacy of two wars, two tax cuts, a big new Medicare drug program and an economic meltdown.

It shouldn’t have been all that hard for the Democrats to get things done and to get some serious credit for it. But last year’s strategies didn’t connect with the public. Beyond making speeches, what does the President do now? Fire a few of his political coaches and bring in new management? Will we see a new strategy from the old team—-or a whole new team?


The media’s been focusing on those “is the nation on the right track” numbers which are hovering around the mid 30% range. Not great, to be sure. But during Bush’s second term those numbers bounced between the teens and the twenties. In October 2008, only 7% thought the country was on the right track.

It’s way too early for anyone to be relegating this President and this Congress to the political scrapheap. What we are seeing is deep disappointment. Many saw a modern political savior when they voted for Obama. That’s a view he didn’t do a lot to discourage. Tonight, having failed to deliver instant salvation, the President essentially abdicated the savior role and admitted that to accomplish great goals it takes a village: a lot of other public officials, a lot of engaged citizens and a media that doesn’t spend most of its time diddling with the trivial.


While the halo may be gone, the President tonight reminded those who elected him that he remains Obama the Good Guy. Obama the Articulate. Obama the Embodiment of America’s Highest Shared Values And Instincts. He certainly didn’t look, sound or feel like a danger to the republic.

Most Americans still like Barack Obama. The question for 2010 is whether, despite the setbacks of 2009, he has it in him to still be the nation’s positive change agent.