Defying pundits, his Republican opposition, and even some in his own party, a defiant President Barack Obama stood at the lectern in the chamber of the House of Representative and delivered an often-combative State of the Union address. On a historic night when the first Black American to serve in the White House, became the first to fulfill the Constitutional requirement to report to the nation, the tone of the President’s speech was in direct contradiction to the predictions many were making throughout the week. President Obama spoke one week after Republicans pulled an upset in the Massachusetts Senate race to capture the seat formerly held by the late Democratic icon Senator Edward Kennedy, and polls were released showing the public increasingly angry over the state of the economy. The speech was also foreshadowed by calls on Capitol Hill for the ouster of Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
The President did not shy away from one of the most controversial measures of his young administration, the bailout of the nation’s financial sector. For months there has been growing anger over the bank bailout and demands that executives in that industry aide consumers and small businesses that are struggling financially. When the President said, “And if there's one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans, and everybody in between, it's that we all hated the bank bailout. I hated it. I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal,” there was laughter on both sides of the aisle in the chamber.
President Obama also defended his administration, citing a number of measures that he pointed to as successes. At one point when he referred to a tax cut for Americans attending college, he joked that he thought that point would elicit more applause and the chamber responded in kind. In many ways, it was a moment that defined the President’s posture during the evening. He used a combination of humor, gentle taunts, and patriotism, with just enough swagger to make it clear that he would not be intimidated into backing away from the aggressive agenda he laid out one year ago. It was clear the President was sending a message to critics who had gained some bravado in the days after the Massachusetts election, and some in his own party who had begun to buckle under the weight of mounting public criticism of the administration’s agenda.
One of the most controversial measures the Obama administration pushed through Congress has been the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), better known as the “stimulus” bill. The massive spending measure was enacted as the first major policy initiative of the Obama administration and was defended, at the time and currently, as a necessary measure to prevent the nation from sliding into a depression. Since President Obama signed the bill, there has been a heated debate over whether it has created jobs and actually provided the boost to the economy that the White House claimed it would. Republicans have chided the stimulus bill as typical Democratic “big government” spending while many Democrats have complained that the measure was not extensive enough and that more spending was necessary to put Americans back to work. While there has been varying estimates as to the number of jobs created, many economists have weighed in and indicated that the stimulus bill did help to prevent a total collapse of the nation’s economy. What has been very clear is that the massive monthly job losses that marked the better part of the President’s first year in office has subsided greatly although unemployment remains alarmingly high, and for Black Americans dangerously high.
Despite the controversy over the stimulus package, the President made no apologies for pushing the measure. The President declared, “Because of the steps we took, there are about two million Americans working right now who would otherwise be unemployed. Two hundred thousand work in construction and clean energy; 300,000 are teachers and other education workers. Tens of thousands are cops, firefighters, correctional officers, first responders. And we're on track to add another one and a half million jobs to this total by the end of the year. The plan that has made all of this possible, from the tax cuts to the jobs, is the Recovery Act. That's right -– the Recovery Act, also known as the stimulus bill.” He backed up his defense of the stimulus package by announcing a new jobs initiative that would be paid for by $30 billion of the federal loans Wall Street banks have repaid the government. President Obama said the money would be given to community banks to aid small businesses, the creation of a new small business tax credit, tax incentives for businesses to invest in new plants and equipment, and the elimination of all capital gains taxes on small business investment.
The President also issued a challenge to Congress to invest in the nation’s future. He spoke of investments other countries were making in education, clean energy and infrastructure, and noted that the United States has not done likewise, jeopardizing its standing in the global economy. President Obama also chided critics who have complained that he was taking on too much, too soon. He said, “From the day I took office, I've been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious; such an effort would be too contentious. I've been told that our political system is too gridlocked, and that we should just put things on hold for a while. For those who make these claims, I have one simple question: How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold? As if to answer his own question, the President added, “Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America.”
Prior to the President’s address, there had been much speculation that he would shy away from the most controversial aspect of his first year in office – his push for health care reform. He did not. With a dose of humor, he noted “And by now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics.” The President used the health care debate to challenge Congress to get the job done. He called on Congress to come up with a better plan than his own, and said he would be willing to look at any alternative offered by members of either party if they met his test for affordability, cost containment, expansion of coverage, and deficit reduction. The President issued a challenge and said, “Here's what I ask Congress, though: Don't walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. Let's get it done. Let's get it done.”
What has been evident during the first year of the Obama presidency is the spike in partisan rhetoric and the increasingly angry tone of political debates. He noted that philosophical differences have been an element of American politics since the birth of the nation, but he called out both parties for the increasingly petty nature of political debates in the nation’s capital. The President complained, “But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. We can't wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side -– a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can.” Sending a message to both political parties, President Obama lectured, “To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town -- a supermajority -- then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. So let's show the American people that we can do it together.”
What was apparent throughout what turned out to be a lengthy State of the Union address, President Obama made clear he was not backing down from his ambitious agenda and was intent on pushing it through Congress. The President’s demeanor may have been the medicine Democrats needed after a week of licking their wounds after the loss of Senator Kennedy’s seat, and the glare that will put Republicans back on their heels and force them to come to the table in earnest, and negotiate their differences with the White House and not simply try to score points for the upcoming midterm elections. Unlike his first speech to a joint session of Congress last year, when Republicans were feisty, and some, outwardly disrespectful, there was a noticeable quietness on the Republican side of the House chamber through most of the President’s speech. However, Mr. Obama’s confident tone forced Republicans out of their seats by the midpoint of his speech, and had them joining their Democratic colleagues applause, when the President declared their work undone and challenged them to serve the American public better.