Obama Fails to Seize the Opportunity of His Big Night

Deal W. Hudson
January 28, 2010

President Barack Obama gave his first State of the Union address last night. With his popularity in a steady decline over the past six months, Obama needed his speech to rekindle the enthusiasm for his leadership that elected him in the first place. Thus far, there is no evidence to suggest he was successful.

In his State of the Union had been a Broadway show, the morning reviews would have closed the show in the first week.

One reason for Obama’s inability to reverse his popularity slide is his decision to ignore the fact that a majority of Americans do not support some of his key initiatives. In a Rasmussen poll taken just before the speech, 61 percent wanted Obama and the Congress to drop health-care reform and focus on jobs. But Obama ignored this widespread resistance and called on Congress to get the bill passed, saying, “We need health insurance reform.”

Simply renaming health-care reform “health insurance reform” will not solve Obama’s political puzzle, nor the underlying problems of the legislation. But this is typical of the president’s approach to political obstacles – change the language, not the substance, and people will drop their objections.

The speech itself broke no new ground either in tone or substance. Obama continued to blame the Bush administration for his inability to rebuild the economy and the GOP for the lack of meaningful legislation passed (in particular, health-care reform).

Most unsettling was Obama’s dressing down of the Supreme Court – who were all sitting directly in front of him – for their recent decision lifting the restrictions on corporate contributions to political advertising. This presidential faux pas elicited a wincing, head-shaking, “that’s not true” from Justice Samuel Alito, which quickly became a popular YouTube video.

Alito’s response is already being called the “Joe Wilson moment” of the evening, referring to the South Carolina congressman’s “You lie!” outburst during the president’s last speech to Congress in September. Needless to say, it doesn’t help Obama that such strong gut reactions became part of the media narrative of an evening that was to be the resuscitation of his presidency.

Other than stumbling over the separation of powers tripwire, the most awkward moment for Obama was the laughter, even from Nancy Speaker Nancy Pelosi, following his declaration, “Starting in 2011, we are prepared to cap government spending for three years.” Embarrassed by the laughter from both sides of the chamber, Obama awkwardly ad-libbed, “That’s how budgets work.” But his speech never recovered its momentum.

If Obama was trying to revive his popularity with independents, he chose a strange moment to announce the end of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the U.S. military. Passed by the 103rd Congress in 1993, this policy regarding homosexuals in the military was signed by President Bill Clinton, a master of attracting and keeping the support of independents. Why Obama would choose to pay homage to his far-left base when he is hemorrhaging independents and blue-dog Democrats are inexplicable.

Some of the punditry following the speech was bizarre. NBC’s Chris Matthews made two contradictory statements. First, he called Obama’s speech “post-racial,” whatever that means, but then added, “Tonight, I forgot he was black.” What? If Matthews had “forgotten Obama was black,” he wouldn’t have mentioned it at all.

Obama’s State of the Union will do nothing to help his popularity, nor will it dilute the potency of Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts on January 19. The president should have spoken directly to the discontent that created an election environment where a Republican could win the seat Ted Kennedy held for 46 years. Instead, he chose to play the martyr to those “malevolent Republicans.”


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