Obama’s Speech May Be Crucial

Expectations Are Sky-High

Posted January 22, 2010 at 6:13pm

Congressional Democrats are anxiously anticipating President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Wednesday as they look to him to reverse a precipitous political slide that has endangered their majorities and helped revive the GOP.

The speech couldn’t come at a better time: Democrats are still reeling from losing last week’s Senate special election in Massachusetts to Republican Scott Brown and struggling to keep health care reform alive. They are hoping Obama can use his national platform to reorient the legislative agenda toward job creation, motivate their depressed ranks and improve their 2010 re-election prospects.

Members are divided over whether Obama should focus his entire address on the economy, but they agree that their political fortunes are tied to how successful he is in delivering it.

“The president has to be focused like a laser beam on jobs, the economy and how we will deal with the deficit,— Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said. “If he does that in a way that he has the powerful ability to connect, we will be in good stead. If that isn’t the primary focus of the State of the Union, then I think it’s challenging moving forward.—

“He needs to reframe the debate,— a senior Democratic Senate aide said. “The overarching message has gotten away from us. Everyone was so focused on health care. Other things are important.—

House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said Obama must zero in on “the two major challenges that we have: One is jobs and the economy; two is the fight against terrorism, particularly in Afghanistan.—

Asked whether health care reform should be a focus, Skelton said he didn’t think Obama “really has to mention health care— since support is dwindling in Congress. The president needs to “face reality,— he said. “The votes are not there for what we have in either house. … He’s got to talk about jobs and the economy.—

Congressional Democrats and Obama signaled late last week that a pivot to job creation was imminent: On Friday the president traveled to Ohio for a town hall meeting on the economy while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his team huddled in the Capitol on a forthcoming jobs bill.

It remains to be seen whether Obama will tell Congress on Wednesday night to put off health care reform and indefinitely delay action on climate change, immigration reform and other big-ticket priorities to instead focus on reducing the nation’s 10 percent unemployment rate. Some Democrats are urging the president to maintain his ambitious domestic agenda — and not to give up on health care.

“He needs to reaffirm the commitment that he has to banning the terrible beggaries of our private health care system when it comes to insuring health care for all,— said Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), whose father, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), championed the issue throughout his career. “He can reiterate the reasons for our taking up this bill. … The president has a bully pulpit, so he has a chance to reiterate this.—

The latest public opinion polls suggest electoral trouble for Democrats — a trend punctuated last week when Brown — with the help of independents — defeated state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D).

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) said Obama’s most important task Wednesday is to close the disconnect between “the sausage-making of the legislative process— and the challenges people are facing at home.

The president’s speech “has to be pretty heavy on ‘I get the message,’— Weiner said. “The message being, ‘Look, I recognize that a lot of people aren’t buying into what were doing here and I recognize we need to be more clear. I recognize that the people of Massachusetts were telling us something. And I get it.’—

Brown’s victory, and the recent public opinion polls, has caused Democrats to approach Obama’s State of the Union address with some apprehension. Liberals want Obama to fight back against the GOP and retrench on Democratic base priorities; moderates want the president to communicate that he heeds the message of Massachusetts by reaching out to Republicans and forging a more bipartisan path.

Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), a fiscally conservative Blue Dog, said: “We have to be more open to working with the other side and coming up with more practical, middle-of-the-road solutions.—

But Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Obama could blow his speech by continuing “to talk about bipartisanship when it’s not possible right now.—

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) suggested Obama is on the right path, but he just needs to do a better job selling his priorities to the country. “I don’t think we should suddenly revamp the whole agenda here,— Kerry said. “The agenda is the agenda. We have to do a better job of making it clear to people what we’re trying to do.—

Republicans were near-unanimous in opposing almost every aspect of Obama’s agenda last year, whether it was the $787 billion economic stimulus measure, the House-passed climate change bill or the health care overhauls. Obama can count on two hands the number of Republican votes that he secured for his top priorities.

But Republicans in the House and Senate, who have overwhelmingly backed Obama on Afghanistan, argue that their obstinacy is a result of the president’s failure to legitimately reach out to them and seek common ground — a charge Democrats deny. GOP Members say they hope Brown’s election to the Senate changes that.

Not surprisingly, Republicans also are hoping to hear Obama pronounce the existing health care bills dead.

“The most welcoming news would be if the president simply refocused his party and his government on what I think is at the heart of the concerns of the American people, which is fiscal discipline and jobs,— Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) said.

“There is a real sense here of misplaced priorities by this administration and this Congress,— Pence added.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom Obama beat for the presidency in 2008, said he would like to hear the commander in chief say “that he’s willing and the Democrats are willing to truly work in a bipartisan fashion. They have had no real bipartisan effort since he’s been president.—