In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama laid out his agenda for the second year of his presidency. Thanks to Republican intransigence and voter skepticism of the scale of his plans, the agenda is largely the same as his first year’s, although couched in more moderate, conciliatory terms.
With the emphasis on tax cuts and a planned spending freeze, it was more conservative sounding too.
But despite the change in tone, the president is not backing off the big plans he brought with him to the office — health care, an overhaul of financial regulation, a cap-and-trade system to control greenhouse gases, closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” for gays in the military.
Any one of these would constitute a significant legislative victory for Obama, but Republicans are disciplined in their opposition to virtually anything he proposes. And with the stunning upset in Massachusetts, he no longer commands a 60-vote Senate supermajority to bring legislation to a vote.
The success of his second year will depend on his persuasive powers to peel away Republican votes when needed.
He has his work cut out with that, despite his best efforts to call for bipartisan leadership in the public interest with a blind eye to who gets the credit for progress.
The signature issue of his first year — health care — is momentarily stalled. But he did get bills through the House and Senate, which in any normal year would have been hailed as a significant accomplishment. But because of the economy and especially unemployment, 2009 was not a normal year. Thus, he devoted the first half hour of his speech to jobs and economic recovery.
The president, however, is not giving up on health care, as the Republicans are urging and as perhaps some Democrats privately wish. To the lawmakers’ laughter, he said, “By now it should be fairly obvious that I didn’t take on health care because it was good politics.” Turning serious, he urged, “Do not walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close.”
But from here the going will only get tougher. A new president can drive the agenda in his first year in office, but in the second year most of Congress is focused not on his legislative priorities but getting re-elected in the fall.
Obama’s first State of the Union speech marked another milestone. Even though the recession, the red ink, unemployment and the unpopular bank bailout are largely not of his doing, the end of the first year in office is the expiration date on what he can blame on his predecessor.
He is a long way from the “Yes, we can!” euphoria of his first day in office when all things seemed possible.