Obama strives to revive the spirit of 2009

President Obama’s State of the Union address was an unusually candid attempt to recapture the magic of his first months in office -- an effort to remind Americans why they admired him in January 2009, and to persuade them to feel that way again.

“I campaigned on the promise of change,” Obama said. “And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren’t sure that they still believe we can change -- or that I can deliver it. [But] I never suggested that change would be easy.”

State of the Union: A photo caption in Section A on Jan. 28 misidentified a member of the Supreme Court attending President Obama’s State of the Union address. The justice pictured was Anthony M. Kennedy, not Stephen G. Breyer. —

In a speech that lasted more than an hour, the president offered a long list of federal initiatives, many of which he has proposed before, aimed at creating new jobs or saving old ones. And he repeatedly admonished members of Congress from both parties to stop bickering and to concentrate on getting things done.

Yet even as he laid out an agenda sure to create further friction, Obama offered few concrete suggestions on how the warring parties in Congress could reconcile -- beyond offering to convene a monthly bipartisan meeting of their leaders.

A senior aide to Obama, speaking under a White House-imposed rule of anonymity to avoid overshadowing the president, said he saw no real sign that Republican leaders want to compromise with the administration, especially after months of bare-knuckled opposition have improved their chances in November’s congressional elections.

Instead, the aide said, Obama will try to “hold them accountable” for legislative gridlock. “They’re either going to be a part of the government or they’re going to sit on the sidelines,” he said. “We will not allow the next 10 months to become a referendum on Barack Obama.”

In effect, he said, Obama should use the public’s yearning for bipartisanship as a cudgel against the opposition -- inviting Republicans to negotiate, and excoriating them if they refuse.

“Bipartisanship is a good issue for Obama; it’s part of his personal brand,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who advised Martha Coakley, the losing Democratic candidate in Massachusetts’ special U.S. Senate election last week. “I just hope he doesn’t believe it. It can’t get in the way of passing the agenda.”

Obama aides rejected suggestions that his speech reflected a substantive “course correction” that would shift Obama’s agenda from ambitious federal programs toward more modest, centrist goals.

Indeed, there was no evidence in the speech of a significant shift toward the center, beyond a call for a three-year freeze in federal spending on many domestic programs -- a freeze that would affect only about 17% of the federal budget and not take effect until next year.

And Obama repeated a long list of legislative goals still pending from his first year, including energy legislation that would institute a “cap and trade” system to limit carbon emissions, and major new investments in education reform.

Still, it was a sign of the president’s predicament that the few genuinely new initiatives he unveiled this week were modest in scope, reminiscent more of the “micro-initiatives” once championed by President Clinton than the audacious proposals of last year’s Barack Obama.

Among this year’s new ideas: about $4 billion in new education spending, a new program to promote U.S. exports, a bigger child-care tax credit for families earning less than $85,000 a year, and a promise to work harder to abolish the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay service members.

Obama spent only a few minutes on healthcare reform, once his signature domestic policy initiative, now mired in congressional gridlock; he appealed to Congress “to take another look at the plan we’ve proposed.”

He spent far more time -- about five times as much -- on the economy, the issue he acknowledged is the top priority for most Americans, and one that has aroused what he described as legitimate anger.

“They don’t understand why it seems like bad behavior on Wall Street is rewarded, but hard work on Main Street isn’t, or why Washington has been unable or unwilling to solve any of our problems,” Obama said.

There was an echo in those words of the findings of Democratic pollsters who examined last week’s election in Massachusetts and discovered that public anger over the federal bailout of major banks had soured many voters on the administration’s economic policies as a whole.

“There is a populist and conservative revolt against Wall Street and financial elites, Congress and government,” Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg warned in an analysis this week. “Democrats and President Obama are seen as more interested in bailing out Wall Street than helping Main Street.”

In what sounded like a quiet bow to that revolt, Obama acknowledged, at least implicitly, that he had made some mistakes in his first 12 months in office. “Our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved,” he said.

But he didn’t say what flaws he was thinking of. Asked before the speech whether the president intended to offer the public an apology for any shortcomings, the senior Obama aide arched an eyebrow.

“He’s not apologetic,” the aide said. “He’s understanding.”

The challenge, of course, is whether the president can convince angry voters that he understands their frustration -- and can respond with useful results -- better than the Republicans can.

This was not the address Obama wanted to give. He had hoped this speech would come on the heels of a momentous victory, the passage of healthcare reform legislation. Instead, he was forced to respond to the circumstances that robbed him of that triumph.