Thursday 22 February 2018

Obama spells out his errors in first State of Union speech

David Usborne

David Usborne

Delving into the dog-eared playbook of political empathy, a somewhat humbled President Barack Obama was headed to Capitol Hill last night to tell the American people that he "feels their pain" at a time of ongoing economic hardship and popular frustration with gummed-up Washington.

Mr Obama, reeling from the loss of a pivotal Senate seat in Massachusetts last week, was set to dedicate parts of his State of the Union address to defending components of his domestic agenda. But he was also ready to admit errors made during his first year in office.

In excerpts released before his speech, Mr Obama said: "We face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope – what they deserve – is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences."

Among his tasks, according to spokesman Robert Gibbs, was to, "explain why he thinks the American people are angry and frustrated". That would also mean accepting some of the responsibility himself for what has not gone right. Perceived missteps include the failure so far to get healthcare reform done, a poor job of communicating with the public and at times taking his eye off the economic ball. "We have to recognise that we face more than a deficit of dollars right now," Mr Obama was expected to say. "We face a deficit of trust – deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years."

The televised address was the President's opportunity to reassure Americans that the economy and job creation will be his number one priority. He was also expected to call for the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy towards homosexuals, reported Reuters. He will follow up the address with a visit to Tampa, Florida, to announce an $8bn award for the construction of high-speed rail links.

As usual, there were different audiences to be satisfied. Jittery Democrats wanted a new narrative to carry them through to the midterms in November. Some bipartisan morsels had to be tossed to Republicans. Then there was the wider US public, of whom only 22 per cent think the government is working well or even half well, according to a new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.

Signalling he remained to committed to healthcare reform, Mr Obama said: "Patients will be denied the care they need. Small business owners will continue to drop coverage altogether. I will not walk away from these Americans."

But how he and party leaders revive that effort in the light of the loss of their 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate remains a mystery. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader signalled he is backing off the issue. "We're not on healthcare now," he said.

Yet, just sticking to the old script was never going to be enough last night. "It would be political malpractice not to adjust to changing circumstances," William Galston, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, said ahead of the speech.

The President is offering a three-year freeze on some areas of government spending. That is meant to reassure voters that he means to tackle a budget deficit that rose to $1.4 trillion this year. The deficit and the debt burden have emerged as a prime worry among voters. Yet, Mr Obama's new emphasis on job growth and assistance to the middle class as well as small businesses will require increased spending. It is a conflict that scholars say is unavoidable as the White House seeks ways to bolster a sticky recovery.

State of the Union: In numbers

837 words Length of shortest State of the Union, delivered by George Washington in 1790

27,465 words Length of longest State of the Union, composed by Harry Truman in 1946

12 Number of State of the Union speeches made by Franklin Roosevelt – still a record

1982 Year the practice of inviting people to be recognised in speech began, courtesy of Ronald Reagan


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