TOPICS > Politics

As Obama Resets Message, Success May Hinge on Economy

January 28, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In his first State of the Union, President Obama said he plans to focus his second year in office on jobs, and renewed his call for more civility in Washington. Judy Woodruff leads a panel of experts about what the speech means for the president's long-term agenda.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama road-tested his new focus on jobs and the economy today.

Margaret Warner begins our coverage of the State of the Union aftermath.

MARGARET WARNER: The president was greeted with roars of applause by a friendly audience in Tampa, Florida.


MARGARET WARNER: He and Vice President Joe Biden unveiled $8 billion in grants for high-speed rail, part of their new focus on job creation. And the president said again he understands what Americans are going through.

BARACK OBAMA: Last night I spoke with you about where we’ve been over the past year and where I believe we need to go. And I said what all of you know from your own lives. These are difficult times. These are challenging times for our country.

In the last two years, we’ve gone through the deepest recession since the Great Depression. Think about that. A big chunk of the people here, certainly the younger people here, have never even seen a recession. They don’t even — it doesn’t register on their minds. This is by the far the toughest thing that the country’s gone through economically since the 1930s.

MARGARET WARNER: The president also repeated his State of the Union plea for the two parties to work together.

BARACK OBAMA: On every one of these issues, my door remains open to good ideas from both parties. I want the Republicans off of the sidelines. I want them working with us to solve problems facing working families, not to score points. I want a partnership. What we can’t do, though — here is what I am not open to. I don’t want gridlock on issue after issue after issue when there are so many urgent problems to solve.

MARGARET WARNER: Back in Washington, there were mixed signals on the prospects for bipartisan progress. Lawmakers from both parties agreed with the focus on creating jobs, but not on the best way to do it.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: The president and I agree on the need to meet in the middle to find bipartisan agreement to grow jobs.

MARGARET WARNER: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was on the Senate floor early, declaring he’s ready to work with the president.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: We know that increased American energy without a new national energy tax will grow good jobs. We know that increasing markets for our farmers, entrepreneurs, and manufacturers overseas through trade agreements will grow good jobs.

We can get these done, and I hope the president will join us in calling on the majority to bring these issues to the floor here in the Senate.

MARGARET WARNER: And Democrats promised to roll out a new jobs agenda within the week.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER. D-N.Y.: The three top issues on our agenda this year are jobs, jobs, and jobs. Neither party can afford to overlook this issue, or it will be seen as obstructing on it. If either party does, it will be at their own political peril.

MARGARET WARNER: But on the House side, Minority Leader John Boehner said Mr. Obama’s calls for bipartisanship and his criticism of Republican opposition rang hollow.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: There was nothing last night in the president’s speech to indicate that there was any willingness to sit down and work together.

MARGARET WARNER: And Indiana Republican Mike Pence said the president still seemed tone-deaf to the need to rein in the deficit, despite his call for a partial spending freeze.

REP. MIKE PENCE, R-Ind.: The president of the United States came to the well of Congress and after apparently offering a nod to focusing on jobs, he renewed his embrace of the failed economic policies of this Congress and this administration to date, calling for one more so-called stimulus bill built on the same failed policies of the last stimulus bill.

MARGARET WARNER: For her part, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi focused today on health care reform, something the president moved down his priority list in last night’s address.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif.: We must pass this legislation, and we must take whatever time it takes to do it. Some things we can do on the side which may not fit into a bigger plan. That doesn’t mean that’s a substitute for doing comprehensive. It means we will move on many fronts.

MARGARET WARNER: The president also drew attention today for his criticism last night of the Supreme Court’s decision on campaign finance.

With all nine justices looking on, he charged that the ruling would open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations. Associate Justice Samuel Alito shook his head and appeared to mouth the words, “Not true.”

This morning, Vice President Biden defended Mr. Obama’s reprimand of the court’s action.

U.S. VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: The president didn’t question the integrity of the court or the decision that they made. He questioned the judgment of it.

Here we are for the first time in over 100 years, we’re equating a corporation with an individual and free speech. The problem is, a lot of these multinational corporations are owned as much by foreign interests as they are by domestic interests. And now, for the first time, you’re going to have corporations, foreign corporations, being able to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to determine the outcome of an election in the United States of America? I think it’s an outrageous decision.

MARGARET WARNER: Tens of millions of Americans watched the State of the Union speech. And many joined in a kind of national conversation online in the hours afterward.

Some posted reactions on the “PBS NewsHour”‘s YouTube channel, and some of them were sharply critical.

MAN: The lame excuses he used in his speech, such as, “I never said the world would come together in harmony simply by the dint of mine becoming president,” or “I didn’t say I could make change happen alone,” simply unmask him as the impotent, naive president he really is.

MARGARET WARNER: But others found the president’s agenda in line with their own.

WOMAN: I felt that the speech actually regained my confidence in his leadership. And it had sort of, you know, got a little loose there for a while. But he was very authentic. And what I loved is that every single issue that he — that whole shopping list is exactly what was on my shopping list.

MARGARET WARNER: Still others in posted comments seemed to despair of any progress.

One wrote: “Sadly, I didn’t have the heart to listen to another speech. Too much talk in Washington, too little action.”

But there were also those who counseled patience, including this one: “I don’t think a year is nearly enough time. And I do think that he has been remarkably strong and effective, considering the situations he has faced.”

Tomorrow, Mr. Obama takes his case directly to House Republicans. He will address their gathering on midterm strategy taking place in

Mr. Obama takes his case directly to house Republicans. He will address their gathering on midterm strategy taking place in Baltimore.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now four takes on President Obama’s address last night: presidential historian and “NewsHour” regular Michael Beschloss, Cynthia Tucker, political columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Reihan Salam, who writes the Agenda blog for The National Review Online, and is a fellow at the New America Foundation, and John Harris, editor-in-chief of Politico.

Good to have you all with us.

And, Michael Beschloss, to you first.

And I’m going to ask each one of you this question.

What did you think of the speech?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: What I wasn’t surprised by was — you, remember, in the last couple of days, a lot of people were saying, this is going to be like Bill Clinton in 1995. Clinton had suffered a big congressional setback, lost both houses of Congress.

And Clinton gave a State of the Union. This is almost a different human being from the previous year, a very conservative speech, a lot of it taken almost wholesale out of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, it seemed.

Not much of that last night. Barack Obama tried to reframe his presidency, remind people that he wasn’t just this lefty big-government man. But, in terms of substance, there was very little change. And I think that really says a lot about Obama, very different from Bill Clinton.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Cynthia Tucker, not a different president?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution: By no means. This is the president that we saw in the campaign in 2008.

He reiterated many of the things that he ran on. He was — he projected an aura of confidence and resolve, determination. And I think he accomplished what he needed to accomplish. He reminded Americans that he understands their economic anguish.

He needed to, as Ronald Reagan did, remind Americans how we got in the mess that we were in. And he needed as well to rally the base, to tell them he wasn’t running away from the promises he had made in 2008.

And so I thought he did all of those things. The speech was a little long, but I think it was a good speech under the circumstances.

MARGARET WARNER: Reihan Salam, he accomplished all that he needed to do?

REIHAN SALAM, New America Foundation: Well, I think Michael made a very, very good point. When you look at President Clinton and his reaction, it was one of humility. It was a recognition that we made serious missteps and we need to pivot; we need to take a new course.

And this president, in stark contrast, said that, in fact, the last year was wildly successful, and that, in fact, folks at home who are disturbed, who are concerned, who have this populist anger are, in fact, badly mistaken. They’re not giving him an assumption of good faith. In fact, he has been reaching out, he has done exactly everything that he ought to do, and that they simply don’t understand that, and he hasn’t explained it adequately.

And I’m not sure that that’s going to be seen as an adequate explanation for a lot of independent voters, certainly a lot of conservative voters, and also for some Democrats who might be more inclined to stay at home come the midterm elections than turn out in droves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, John Harris, it sounds like Reihan Salam is saying he needed to show a little more humility. What did you make of the speech?

JOHN HARRIS, Politico: I thought there were two distinct tests that he was facing with the speech.

The first test was with the broader public, the audience. And this is one of those occasions where a president can truly command a wide national audience, even if this era of a fragmented media. This was a national event. Some 50 million people watched it.

He had to clear that test. And then I think there was a second test with an insider audience of people in Washington that wanted to know how he was going to respond to his starkly different political circumstances.

He may be the same president and the same message, as Cynthia said, but his circumstances and his options are much, much different. I thought he cleared the first test easily. He showed himself sort of vigorous. There were some flashes of humility in places, but also real flashes of fight, occasionally some humor. And people saw that he wasn’t personally defeated or back on his heels. That test cleared.

The insider test, people that are saying now what for his presidency, he’s got all these ideas, but what are the actual prospects, what does the legislative strategy look like, how do we achieve this, I don’t think he did terribly well on that test.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Michael Beschloss, how important is that inside-Washington audience?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Oh, important, but I think they’re not going to be hugely influenced by this.

This is really, you know, trying to remind people beyond Washington that he may not be what he’s been caricatured as, especially the last few weeks, when people were focused on that race in Massachusetts.

But, you know, we were mentioning Bill Clinton a moment ago. Clinton was a survivor, to use the title of John Harris’ excellent book on the Clinton presidency. He would have done almost anything to get reelected.

Something fascinating that Obama said the other day, he said, I would rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.

I think he really means it, and I think last night showed that he did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Reihan Salam, this one-term/two-term statement, what do you make of that, and how does that affect your view of his performance last night?

REIHAN SALAM: I think that it was a very powerful and very telling statement. One of the key aspects of President Obama’s appeal has been this idea that he’s not an ideologue, that he’s profoundly pragmatic, and that he’s not terribly interested in partisanship and what have you, and he’s perfectly willing to embrace good ideas from the Republican side.

And I’m not sure that’s actually true. I think that the president is someone who has very deep core convictions, very deep ideological convictions. And I actually believe him when he says that. I believe that he wants to achieve certain broad policy objectives that, as he alluded to in the speech, are things that folks who are on the more free market right, folks who advocate a robust federalism, decentralization, et cetera, are going to be uncomfortable with.

And I do in a sense find that very impressive. He doesn’t just want to get reelected. He doesn’t necessarily want to do what that median voter wants. He wants to aid progressivism in this very broad sense. He wants to help progressive Democrats, not necessarily centrist Democrats, like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, win reelection.

And, so, that was part of what he was saying when he said, hey, look, guys, you still have very big, robust majorities. Let’s get this done. We didn’t come here for fun and we didn’t come for fun and games. We came here to actually achieve, to build this kind of progressive governing agenda, and to change the trajectory of where this country is going.

It’s just that a lot of folks are uncomfortable with that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Cynthia Tucker, what about — coming back to this notion that John Harris put out of the public vs. the Washington audience, do you see that same divide, the two audiences that he had to reach?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: I don’t think that the State of the Union speech was the place for him to lay out the legislative and political strategy for the job that he is trying to accomplish, the legislation that he wants to get passed.

I think his job was to shore up wavering Democrats: I’m not going to run for the hills, and you shouldn’t either.

In the coming days, he will be out on the trail, as he was today, getting voter support. And he’s going to be doing a lot of arm-twisting behind the scenes to get his agenda passed. And, in that sense, he has a much higher chance of moving Democrats than he does Republicans, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about that, John Harris? What is the — what’s your sense? Was it smart for him to make this appeal to bipartisanship and to say to his colleagues, don’t run for the hills?

JOHN HARRIS: Oh, absolutely. And I want to clarify my point. I don’t think a State of the Union speech would be the appropriate place to sort of lay out, kind of in the nitty-gritty, legislative tactics or the legislative calendar. Cynthia’s quite right about that.

And I do think two things that Obama was trying to do — and these are lessons from Bill Clinton — one, liberate himself from Congress. I don’t think any president wants to be seen as tied to the fortunes of his or her own party within the Congress.

He wants to stand above other politicians and to some extent liberate himself from his party, be seen as president of the United States, rather than just leader of the Democratic Party. So, in that sense, it was effective.

But here’s where I do think it was important to address the inside audience. In the first term, there was a very clear theory of the case that Barack Obama and his aides were advancing, the so-called big bang theory of governance. They were going to pass big things all in one year: health care, cap-and-trade legislation for global warming, financial re-regulation.

A year later, none of those things have passed. The big bang didn’t work. And, so, what is the new governing theory now? He’s got lots of good ideas, but what is the actual sort of political strategy behind these governing ideas that will actually bring them to enactment?

And I don’t think that’s a matter of legislative tactics. That’s a matter of, how does he see his presidency and how does he demonstrate effectiveness?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I — and you’re saying he didn’t — he didn’t — we didn’t hear that last night.

Michael Beschloss, did you hear that?


And, you know, I think he’s recognizing that there’s a very good chance that, even if he serves eight years, his most powerful moment as president, at least with Congress, was last year, and will not ever come again.

And the other thing is that this speech really had the resonance not of Clinton, but Ronald Reagan 1983, deep recession, a lot of joblessness. Reagan went to Congress and said, the state of the union is strong, but our economy is troubled. We inherited an economy that was much worse than we expected.

We heard almost the same thing last night. And the lesson from Reagan was, Reagan was recognizing that his fate was tied to whether the economy got better. It did by ’84. He got reelected.

In Barack Obama’s case, he knows that his reelection and the fate of this presidency rests on if the economy gets better, two wars abroad, the struggle against terrorism. If those things go well, he will be fine. But he knows that he’s largely a hostage to those events.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Cynthia, how — go ahead, yes.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: I’m glad Michael mentioned Reagan, because I think there are many lessons that Obama can take from Reagan here. One of those was that, when Reagan was in trouble, he didn’t back down. He stuck to his principles. He forged ahead. And he lost…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He might have said, don’t head for the hills.


Republicans lost seats in the midterm elections in Reagan’s first term, but he still stuck to his policies, and then he was reelected by large margins in four years.

Of course, that did depend on the economy. And if the economy improves, I think that Obama can accomplish some of those big issues, big legislative battles that he hasn’t been able to get done so far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which raises a point, again, Reihan Salam, which a lot of people have been bringing up, and this is, does a speech really matter? If employment doesn’t pick up, if people don’t go back to work, the economy doesn’t turn around, will this speech have mattered?

REIHAN SALAM: I think it won’t.

I think that, basically, the speech will be vindicated if the president does pass some big-ticket legislation, particularly his health reform, and then congressional Democrats will breathe a sigh of relief.

The big difference with Reagan and the big flaw in the analogy is that Reagan depended on those Boll Weevil Democrats. He didn’t really need a partisan majority, as long as he basically had an ideological majority.

And now the parties work very differently today than they did back then. And so Barack Obama depends on having large Democratic majorities. Without that, it’s not clear that his strategy works, as John Harris suggested before. And that’s why the midterm elections are very, very important. If he loses those majorities, if he has to depend on Blue Dogs to pass his agenda, he is in a serious bind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, John Harris, if you don’t see a theory of governing coming out of this speech last night, what do you look for from him, from the White House, and from what the president says going forward?

JOHN HARRIS: Oh, I perceive them as very much in an improvisational moment. I don’t think we necessarily heard or could read between the lines a theory because I’m not sure they have yet settled on one.

Bill Clinton showed that you can be a very effective president without having big legislative majorities or, in his case, for six of his eight years, any majority at all. Barack Obama has all the tools of power at his disposal, but he’s clearly going to have to use them in a different way than he did in the first year.

And I don’t think they have settled this. I don’t think, incidentally, Judy, that we’re going to be hearing that sort of one-term line very often. I don’t really think that there’s a — just as a…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Don’t you think his fellow Democrats just loved hearing that, John?

JOHN HARRIS: Well, Michael can speak to this, but I don’t think that, in presidential terms, there’s nobility in defeat.

The most effective presidents are the ones that are also the most politically effective. And the least effective ones are the ones that don’t get reelected. So, the idea that I would rather be right than popular, I think, as Clinton himself might have said, a false choice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Put a button on this, Michael. What…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Oh, we can argue that sometime. I think there have been some very good one-term presidents who lost reelection because they did very important, unpopular things. But time will tell.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Name them, quickly. No, I won’t ask you to…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Five more minutes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Beschloss, Cynthia Tucker, Reihan Salam, John Harris, thank you all.

JOHN HARRIS: Thanks, Judy.