President Barack Obama reassured a frustrated, impatient nation Wednesday night that he understands the pain Americans are feeling as unemployment rises, home values plummet and life savings evaporate. With his agenda stalled by partisanship and economic worries, the president focused much of his State of the Union address on efforts to create jobs and restore financial stability for families and businesses. It was a pivotal moment for an administration that took office a year ago with a compelling long-term vision that has been overwhelmed by more immediate fears.
Obama offered a variety of proposals to encourage job creation and provide relief to middle class voters furious about bank bailouts and Wall Street bonuses. He proposed a three-year freeze on domestic spending (aside from entitlement programs) and the creation of a bipartisan task force to recommend ways to lower the federal deficit, which has become a front-burner issue. But more important than the laundry list of initiatives was the president's acknowledgement of a "credibility gap'' between Washington and the rest of the country.
"We have to recognize that we face more than a deficit of dollars right now,'' Obama said. "We face a deficit of trust — deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years."
Part of that loss of trust, of course, can be attributed to the failure in Washington to bridge the partisan divide and a lack of common purpose in Congress. Obama renewed his pitch to Republicans to work with Democrats, but Senate Republicans emboldened by their upset win in Massachusetts last week show no inclination to cooperate. Congressional Democrats, shaken by the loss of Ted Kennedy's old seat, are badly splintered on health care and other issues. Obama's plea to "try common sense'' should have resonated with voters, but it likely fell on deaf ears in the Capitol.
For all his oratorical gifts, the president also bears responsibility for the sour mood among voters. Obama's key initiatives, from the economic stimulus to health care reform to energy, have been generally sound. But the president failed to explain how those efforts would benefit families and have a long-term positive impact on the economy. Then the focus turned to the administration's battle with Congress as jobs continued to disappear, and the White House appeared out of touch.
Obama began to reconnect Wednesday night. In a sweeping narrative that should have been shorter, he described how the stimulus has saved and created jobs — including thousands in Florida. He mentioned his trip today to Tampa to announce more than $1 billion for high-speed rail from Tampa to Orlando. He talked in real terms of helping small businesses and the benefits of investing in renewable energy. And he described the practical effect of failing to act on health care reform for both the insured and the uninsured, including more than 3.6 million uninsured Floridians.
"Do not walk away from reform,'' Obama urged. "Not now. Not when we are so close.''
It was an upbeat, determined address by a president who appeared unbowed by Washington gridlock and a skeptical public. Obama seamlessly blended an emphasis on the economy with a recommitment to the major initiatives of his presidency. Whether he made inroads with Congress will depend on how well he succeeded in reassuring Americans fearful about the future.