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Obama: Rhetoric and reality

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Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address satisfied the Constitution’s requirement that the president recommend to Congress “such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” It also lived up (or down) to the modern expectation that such speeches will be extravagant exercises in high rhetoric and political theater. What it seems unlikely to do, however, is galvanize support in Congress and the country for what until very recently was the president’s most prized priority.

Obama’s speech was an amalgam of genuinely inspirational language, empathy (especially, and rightly, for the unemployed) and a legislative laundry list of programs he’d like to see enacted. Although we like most of his initiatives -- we were pleased, for instance, that he called for an end to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy -- it’s obvious that all those promises cannot be met in a Washington that couldn’t even agree on his one big reform project this year.

Obama downplayed healthcare reform, waiting until he was half an hour in before even mentioning it. Instead, he focused on the areas where his advisors apparently believe he has been losing traction. He emphasized jobs and the economy and the struggles of middle-class Americans. He acknowledged some political missteps during his first year, and he continued his eloquent call for bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill.

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To be fair, when he finally got to healthcare, he did not exactly back down. Rather, he catechized the audience in the rationale for reform, promising that he would not walk away from the issue and urging Congress not to do so either. He didn’t have to add that walking -- or running -- has become increasingly attractive to Democrats after the victory of Republican Scott Brown in the Massachusetts special election.

Yet Obama may have harmed his own cause by including healthcare reform in an aggregation of worthy and not-so-worthy causes, from green jobs to better schools to earmark reform. The president also signaled that he was open to new ideas -- which opponents may see not as accommodation but as capitulation. If a bill is to be resuscitated, it will require braving the conventional wisdom that, post-Massachusetts, the least said about healthcare, the better. It may also require the D.C. version of Chicago street smarts to surmount parliamentary hurdles.

The Times endorsed Obama, and we’ve been generally happy with his performance to date. We don’t think it’s his fault (exactly) that he lost his 60th vote or that Republicans have been implacably partisan. We found his address moving and even inspirational at times. But now we’re waiting to see what can get done in that bitterly divided town. Good luck to him.


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