Thursday, January 28, 2010

Obama defines the problems, comes up short on solutions

It is Barack Obama's misfortune that people typically don't give the president much credit for things they never experienced — namely the economic depression that seemed so possible as he took office last January.

It's his further misfortune that the public appears to be demanding things that are beyond any president's control — namely a swift end to an economic slump created by years of irresponsibility and less of the massive spending that is, for now, helping to keep things from getting worse.

But that is the nature of the office, and while Obama's State of the Union address Wednesday did a fine job of defining the problems America is facing, convincing solutions seemed to elude him.

To be sure, he cited plenty of plans and made plenty of legitimate claims to success in the past year, nearly all of which have been overshadowed in recent months by his all-consuming focus on health care. He also correctly analyzed the core difficulty — "a Washington where every day is election day," a point scoring contest where solving problems is secondary to political gain and ideological rigidity blocks pragmatic solutions. He made clear that he is going to stay on the course that got him elected president, including pressing for his stalled but worthwhile health care plan.

But there was little indication of what he would do differently to achieve what so far has proved impossible. If he could not change the way Washington works and curb the influence of lobbyists in his first year in office, when he was riding a crest of popularity, it's questionable whether he can do so in his second, amid sagging polls.

Adding to the president's problems is that the impatient national audience seems almost impossible to please. People want cheaper, more affordable medical insurance coverage, but not the tradeoffs that would make that possible. They want jobs, but they're wildly critical of government spending and big deficits.

In a welcome shift, Obama signaled he would begin taking those enormous deficits more seriously, but his proposal to freeze spending lacked coherence. He exempted entitlements, the Pentagon and homeland security, which are hardly immune from wasteful spending. At the same time, he urged passage of a new jobs bill and an array of modest middle-class initiatives, such as lowering student loan payments and expanding the child-care tax credit. (Does everyone in Washington think voters are too dumb to recognize that tax credits are just another form of spending?)

Members of Congress from both parties applauded Obama's calls for fiscal responsibility, but there's been no serious push for deficit reduction there since the 1990s. The Senate couldn't even pass a face-saving bill Tuesday to create a commission to do the job. Like 3-year-olds holding their breath so they don't have to swallow bad-tasting medicine, Republicans insisted they'd vote no unless the panel were barred from considering tax increases, while some Democrats demanded that Social Security be taken off the table.

The true state of the union — and particularly its Congress — is that it is utterly unwilling to come together to make the tough choices that are, in the end, unavoidable.

Only presidents can break that sort of gridlock, and then only when they have overwhelming public support that they can use to pressure Congress.

Obama's speech appeared to be an opening bid to regain that appeal. He heads to Florida today, in full campaign mode, to continue his pitch.

The question is whether he can recapture the disaffected independents who elected him, or whether the thrill is gone for good.

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