Obama strives to revive the spirit of 2009

A little more than a year ago, Barack Obama became president with a call for national unity, a promise to change the way Washington works, and a plea for a new, bipartisan “era of responsibility.”

To a nation gripped by economic crisis and weary of polarized politics, it sounded good. Obama’s popularity soared, even among conservatives who didn’t agree with many of his specific policy ideas.

One year and one week later, Obama’s State of the Union address on Wednesday 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 that they should still feel that way in 2010.

“I campaigned on the promise of change -- ‘change we can believe in,’ the slogan went,” Obama said. “And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren’t sure if they still believe we can change -- or at least that I can deliver it. But remember this: I never suggested that change would be easy. . . . We don’t quit. I don’t quit.”

He admonished both parties in Congress to stop behaving as if “every day [were] election day,” and promised not to “give up on changing the tone of our politics.”

“To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills,” he said. To Republicans, he said, “Just saying ‘no’ to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership.”

He also 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, briefing journalists under a White House-imposed rule of anonymity to avoid overshadowing the president, rejected the suggestion that the speech added up to a “course correction.” Obama’s policy positions today are all “consistent” with his past views, the aide said.

And, indeed, there was no sign in the speech of any policy 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 take effect only next year.

But there was no denying that the speech represented a deliberate change in emphasis. 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.”

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

“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,” he said.

There was an echo in those words of the findings of Democratic pollsters, who examined last week’s Republican victory in a special Senate 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, and it is centered among independents,” 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.”