Thursday, January 28, 2010

Obama's State of the Union: damaged but unrepentant

It was a difficult call: should he go for contrition or proud intransigence? Admit that he had misjudged the national mood, or refuse to give in to what he would characterise as Republican dirty tricks? In the end, Barack Obama veered more toward the latter than the former. The over-riding theme was summed up in one of the closing passages of this first State of the Union speech: “Americans don’t give up. I don’t give up.”

So officially at least, there was to be no backing down on healthcare reform – except that by now it had become health insurance reform. No more talk of a public option or of a genuinely nationalised healthcare programme: just legislation to curb the rights of health insurance providers to refuse cover to people with pre-existing conditions, etc. The great Obama revolution in health was now a matter of guaranteeing that people would be able to choose their healthcare plans “in a competitive market”.

As for those struggling middle class families which his administration has been accused of neglecting, they got a fair helping of reassurance that he felt their pain. But not a great deal that was new in concrete terms. From a British point of view what was most significant was that even this Left-of-centre president proudly boasted that he had cut the taxes of 95 per cent of working families and that he had not increased income tax by a penny. To loud applause he boasted of having cut 25 taxes which meant that “people had more to spend” which in turn helped businesses to retain jobs. And he was also absolutely clear that the way to create jobs was to cut business taxes. He would abolish captal gains tax on investment for small businesses which are the greatest generators of new jobs in the US as they are here. Yes, even the Left gets it in America: the way to promote growth is to reduce taxes.

His manner and tone were always going to be subject to lively scrutiny: had his nerve been broken? Would the “cool” Obama survive the catastrophic defeat in Massachusetts and the collapse of his approval ratings? Well, he was cool enough. Jaunty, even – which may prove to have been a misjudgement. He clearly wanted to look undaunted but he came across as almost flippant. A more sombre delivery might have seemed more in tune with the anger and frustration of voters who still see themselves as beset by crisis. I rather expect that many of them could have done without the high school valedictory peroration on the greatness of American ideals and how “our values are American values” rather than Democrat or Republican values, and that political opponents who just wanted to “say ‘no’ to everything” were underming those values, etc, etc.

Railing against the evils of partisan politics is the last refuge of the failing leader. It’s a bit desperate to be falling back on that tactic after only a year in office – especially when that year was spent with a firm lock on your congressional majority. If Obama is reduced to blaming Washington infighting for his inability to impress the nation after a year in which his party dominated government, what will the next three years be like?

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