State of the Union: Obama’s reality problem

Washington Post | by Michael Gerson | Jan. 27, 2010

President Obama’s primary problem is not rhetorical — though, about an hour into the State of the Union address, I gave up hoping that it might eventually build toward something remotely interesting. (For much of the speech Obama sounded like a commerce secretary at a professional conference on a particularly uninspired day.) Obama’s problem is not primarily political — though he seems in complete denial about the political dangers he faces. (He amazingly blamed his health-care failure on “not explaining it more clearly.”) Obama’s problem is not a vice president behind his right shoulder who can’t stop his distracting, sycophantic nodding — though it was certainly annoying.

Obama has a reality problem.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated this week that unemployment will average more than 10 percent for the first half of this year, before declining at a slower pace than in past recoveries. On this economic path, Obama’s presidency will fail. Many Democrats in the House chamber tonight will lose their jobs. And the nation will enter a Carter-like period of stagnation and self-doubt.

Every element of the president’s speech tonight should be considered in this light.

* Health Care. On this issue, elected Democrats are desperate for leadership. They want to avoid total defeat on last year’s highest legislative priority, while pivoting swiftly to the economy. Obama gave no indication of how this feat will be accomplished. Instead, he called attention to his own virtue, foresight and tenacity in pursuing the issue. His approach was entirely self-centered. Democrats in tough races can only conclude that the president is indifferent to their political needs. On health care, it is every Democrat for himself.

* The Deficit. The president’s trial balloon of a limited, discretionary spending freeze has quickly deflated. Conservatives dismiss it as pathetic symbolism. Liberals attack it as Hooverism. And the policy conflicts with Obama’s campaign criticism of spending freezes. It is a policy disaster.

A spending commission might be a good idea, if it had fast-track authority that forced Congress to vote on a package of serious cuts. But, as the president noted, the Senate defeated a similar measure earlier this week, and his executive order is weak version of this concept.

* Middle Class Relief. These are the type of proposals that work for politicians in normal economic times. In bad economic times, the middle class (and others) do not want symbolism and sympathy. They want economic growth and jobs.

* Economic Growth and Jobs. Tonight the president had one main task: to make a credible case that his policies will help reduce unemployment. For the most part, he failed. His proposal to cut the capital gains tax for small business investment seems positive. His other ideas — taking money from some bankers and giving it to other bankers and a temporary hiring tax credit — are a caricature of job-creation policy. For the most part, Obama defended a continuation and expansion of the stimulus package, which promises to bring prosperity on high-speed trains. Compare Obama’s speech to John Kennedy’s State of the Union in 1963, which called for permanent tax cuts that would allow America to move toward full employment. Some Democratic presidents have actually understood how the economy works.

After a series of political humiliations, Obama called on Republicans to change their course. Facing a general revolt against Washington, he proudly took credit for posting the names of White House visitors online. Promising to change the tone in Washington, he managed to be petty, backward looking, defiant and self-justifying.

Barack Obama has lost his promise. He has lost his momentum. He has lost his touch. He has lost his filibuster-proof Senate majority. He has lost his first year in office.

Tonight, he lost his grip on reality.

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