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At State of the Union, a chastened Obama

Chastened is not an adjective normally associated with Barack Obama. But that was the underlying theme of his State of the Union address: that a rocky first year in office had left Americans unsure about whether he can produce the soaring change he once promised.

"I know there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change -- or that I can deliver it," the president said Wednesday night. This was a remarkable admission. Obama said he had never believed that "the mere fact of my election would usher in peace and harmony and some post-partisan era." But the forces of political gravity have exerted more downward force than the president and his team could have imagined a year ago.

Obama's acknowledgment of public anxieties was not exactly matched by an admission of his role in helping create them. He spoke in the "mistakes were made" passive voice. The administration suffered "some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved," Obama said -- without detailing which, exactly.

On health care, he accepted "my share of the blame" -- but only for "not explaining it more clearly to the American people." I'm supportive of health reform and the president's decision to try it despite the head winds of a bad economy. No president lacks for explanatory opportunities; this president is a gifted explainer who has seized every such moment. To assess the problem as simply one of salesmanship underestimates the degree and nature of public concern. Likewise, Obama's distancing dismissal of "all the lobbying and horse-trading" ignores the White House's central role at the corral. After you've been in the backroom with PhRMA, it rings more than a little false to express outrage about what was going on in there.

So can a chastened Obama regain the lost sense of excitement and opportunity? Eventually, perhaps, but never entirely. The second time is never as thrilling.

On a rhetorical and symbolic level, his exhortations to "overcome the numbing weight of our politics" felt stale. Voters entranced by this vision a year ago could be forgiven if they respond with more skepticism now, when partisanship and gridlock seem more entrenched than ever.

As a matter of substance, the admonition to "take another look" is hardly a clear rallying cry on health care, particularly coupled with the announcement that "jobs must be our No. 1 focus in 2010." A president's ability to magically create jobs is limited; tax credits for small businesses that create jobs and vows to "slash the tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas" seem designed more with politics in mind than economics. On the debt, a spending freeze is a fine signal but small bore compared to the magnitude of the problem. Obama cannot allow his planned deficit-reduction commission to become another mechanism for the can-kicking he once promised to end.

This could be Obama's low point. The economy is slowly recovering. The loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat was a political earthquake, but Democrats have already factored in the likelihood of a bleak November and dramatically narrowed majorities. By next year's State of the Union, the president, I predict, will be neither as beleaguered as he now appears nor as invincible as he seemed a year ago.

By Ruth Marcus  | January 28, 2010; 12:19 PM ET
Categories:  Marcus  | Tags:  Ruth Marcus  
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By next year's State of the Union, the president, I predict, will be neither as beleaguered as he now appears nor as invincible as he seemed a year ago.
alrighty then. We'll hold you to it. I doubt you'll be correct.

Posted by: silencedogoodreturns | January 28, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Brave prediction, Ruth!

Posted by: SoulADad | January 28, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

The next State of the Union will quite likely have a Republican sitting in the Speaker's chair behind Obama.

This speech was supposed to be Obama's graceful "pivot" ... but it was as graceless and inept as a cow on roller skates.

Posted by: gitarre | January 28, 2010 6:04 PM | Report abuse

yadda yadda -BULL to your 'cow on skates' & to your miserable excuse of todays GOP-Obama was right on the money last night & CORRECT to remind us all who brought us this God-awful mess over previous 8 years-they & you are indeed skating--- on very thin ice if you think the mess your party handed for Obama & Co to get of--the worst in modern history as somehow sanctified by a win in MA!!! Your comments are so off the mark its ludicrous-in Nov we will remember!!!--

Posted by: neilo1 | January 28, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

He didn't look chastened at all. He was as arrogant, pedantic, and as grating as ever.

Posted by: PS7900 | January 28, 2010 6:55 PM | Report abuse

Chastened is too strong a word. The President mentioned that there had been failures but he didn´t appear to be chastened by them. If so, then why do other analysts mention his "fighting" attitude. I remember Clinton´s speech after the 1994 elections and am glad that Obama didn´t repeat that humble pie mess.
So he´s lost a few and won a few; such is politics. Why should he feel chastened or humbled (that´s not his style anyway).

Posted by: Aquarius1 | January 28, 2010 8:17 PM | Report abuse

Chastened? I think you heard a different speech. I heard a fighting speech. I heard a leader determined to catch up with those he leads and thankfully a man pretty much over the idea that he can work with the sneering and over-confident Republicans. I didn't hear Obama say that the era of big government is over, as Clinton did after the election of 1994. Nor have I heard any important Republicans say the president is irrelevant yet.

Posted by: DWSouthern | January 28, 2010 10:42 PM | Report abuse

It's interesting that you use the word "chastened" to describe Obama last night. As Keith olbermann showed, white Republican pundits, mainly on Fox News, called Obama "arrogant" and a "punk." Keith thinks those are code words for something else when applied by a white conservative to a black man. I do too. In any case, the enemy certainly doesn't see the president as chastened.

Posted by: DWSouthern | January 28, 2010 10:46 PM | Report abuse

At the State of the Union next year, Democrats will have lost the house and seriously degraded their majority in the Senate, the Fed will be so far in debt there will be no more MAJOR bills, unemployment will probably be at about 9% definitely not below 8%...




Posted by: TonyV1 | January 29, 2010 2:08 AM | Report abuse

Chastened? I don't think so; extremely annoyed would be more accurate!

I saw a frustrated president who actually wants to serve the people of this country and solve real problems, and expected others to actually want to do the same; absolutely dumbfounded at the complete self-absorption and absence of concern for the country among those he must deal with as co-equals in governance.

Posted by: risejugger | January 29, 2010 4:09 AM | Report abuse

He dissed Congress, the Supreme Court, obstructionist Republicans, head for the hills Democrats, the stupid public for not understanding the health care bill (there are two bills), big banks, big business, the science of global warming and the debit (by proposing a token effort next year. I surely missed some.

I predict he will find even fewer friends in the future. Thank God he will still have the press.

Posted by: flyover22 | January 29, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

Herr ObamaKraut was as asinine, pompous, condescending, deprecating, egotistical, psychotic, delusional, detached, buffoonish, and WRONG as usual.

He alienated himself even further from the regular working Joe, with his magnanimous flair when orating about his job bill. He made it sound as though we should get on our knees and worship him for taking an effing YEAR to do anything about this economic mess he helped create; which still amounts to the hot air he spews whenever he opens his pie hole.

Posted by: obamaalmighT | January 29, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

All this guy has done over the course of the year is spend reckless amounts of money. His only claim of accomplishment is the TARP bailout/heist, but that was Bush not Obama. We, the taxpayer not the freeloading hordes of Obama supporters, will never see that money again. He had the congress totally focused on his pet project healthcare bill for months, while the country was diving into worse and worse unemployment. How anybody can take him seriously after a year of failure is amazing to me.

Posted by: peterg73 | January 29, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

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