For Obama, Speech With Competing Goals

  • President Obama makes his way through the House chamber ahead of his first State of the Union address Wednesday.
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    President Obama makes his way through the House chamber ahead of his first State of the Union address Wednesday.
    Tim Sloan/Pool via Getty Images
  • Vice President Biden greets Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.
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    Vice President Biden greets Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.
    Tim Sloan/Pool via AP
  • Obama hands copies of his speech to Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
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    Obama hands copies of his speech to Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
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  • "One year later, the worst of the storm has passed, but the devastation remains," Obama tells the joint session of Congress.
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    "One year later, the worst of the storm has passed, but the devastation remains," Obama tells the joint session of Congress.
    Charles Dharapak/AP
  • Obama calls for the nation to "start anew."
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    Obama calls for the nation to "start anew."
    Tim Sloan/AP
  • Members of the U.S. Supreme Court listen to Obama's speech.
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    Members of the U.S. Supreme Court listen to Obama's speech.
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  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid listens to Obama.
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    Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid listens to Obama.
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  • When the president said he would be open to suggestions on health reform, House Republican Leader John Boehner raised his hand. Here, Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert (from left), House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia and Boehner share smiles.
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    When the president said he would be open to suggestions on health reform, House Republican Leader John Boehner raised his hand. Here, Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert (from left), House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia and Boehner share smiles.
    Susan Walsh/AP
  • Democrats (from right) House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina, and Connecticut Rep. John Larson applaud.
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    Democrats (from right) House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina, and Connecticut Rep. John Larson applaud.
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  • First lady Michelle Obama reacts to applause. At left: Officers Mark Todd and Kimberly Munley of Killeen, Texas. Directly above the first lady: Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph. At right: Rebecca Knerr and Jill Biden.
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    First lady Michelle Obama reacts to applause. At left: Officers Mark Todd and Kimberly Munley of Killeen, Texas. Directly above the first lady: Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph. At right: Rebecca Knerr and Jill Biden.
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  • Obama winks while making a point.
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    Obama winks while making a point.
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  • The president shakes hands on his way out of the chamber following his speech.
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    The president shakes hands on his way out of the chamber following his speech.
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President Obama used his first State of the Union address to try to reframe his ambitious agenda as one that addresses what voters say is their top concern: the economy.

It was a speech of competing, perhaps impossible aims: reassuring both liberals and the disaffected moderate and independent voters that he and his party need to win back that he is in their corner.

The president went into Wednesday night's address with an approval rating that has dipped below 50 percent, a signature health care initiative that has been effectively derailed and a middle-class electorate that has soured on him.

Obama didn't offer many new ideas, nor did he reach out in a strong, bipartisan way to Republicans on Capitol Hill. (The boldest stroke was his announcement that he would work this year to repeal the ban on openly gay Americans in the military.)

Instead, the president attempted to reach beyond a deeply divided, intransigent Congress to deliver a populist appeal directly to American voters for their patience and, perhaps, their future consideration.

He took some blame for political stumbles and acknowledged that people were disappointed he hadn't accomplished more and faster.

But he warned his party members that they had better not run for the hills when the going gets tough. And he cautioned minority Senate Republicans that if they continue to threaten to filibuster legislation, they also own the nation's problems.

"Just saying no to everything may be short-term politics, but it's not leadership," he said.

Wooing Back Moderates And Independents

It was a speech that suggested Obama and his advisers are still trying to sort out a way forward after the Democrats lost the late Sen. Edward Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts — and with it, their supermajority in the Senate. And Obama took the opportunity to remind Americans again of the mess he inherited upon taking office.

In-Depth Analysis From NPR Reporters

Get fact-checking and perspective on issues Obama addressed in his speech:

Two wars. A financial system on the brink of financial collapse. A deficit of over $1 trillion, with a projected 10-year shortfall deficit of more than $8 billion.

"That was before I walked in the door," he said, making a case for his administration's role in the economy's faltering but seemingly real steps forward.

Delivering the official GOP response, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell asserted that the federal government is "simply trying to do too much." He made no specific proposals, but he ticked off unemployment statistics and advised that the government should not "pile on more taxation, regulation, and litigation that kill jobs and hurt the middle class."

Supporters said they took solace in Obama's words, particularly his reiteration of his support for health care legislation, though he provided no details on how he would get it passed.

Detractors characterized the speech as small-ball, designed to mollify with mini-initiatives on jobs and child and family care the independent and moderate voters who help win elections. Right now those voters aren't looking too kindly on the president.

"It is hard to reset an administration with a State of the Union speech," said John Pitney Jr., a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College and former Republican staffer on Capitol Hill. "In this case, he did not turn the page as much as insert footnotes."

Assuaging Supporters

For Democrats like strategist Karen Finney, however, the speech was reassuring. "The tone and subject were pitch-perfect," she said. "It was very important that he stood by the agenda and ideas that he campaigned on."

"I give him a lot of credit for challenging both Democrats and Republicans to refocus on what they were sent to Washington to do."

Darry Sragow, a California-based Democratic consultant, said he found the president "optimistic, forthright and unapologetic."

"His high priority on jobs was the right focus," he said. "If there was a problem, it was the overly long menu: He really needs to focus his agenda."

That agenda included tax incentives for small businesses to hire new employees and improve wages; a fiscal commission to recommend ways to reduce the deficit; and a modest menu of help for the middle class, including child and elder care assistance.

Critics Say Effect Negligible

Republican Kevin Madden, who served as Mitt Romney's presidential campaign spokesman, said the president looked as if he "decided the lesson of his first year in office is that the best way to score is by just hitting singles and doubles."

He criticized the president's proposals as small items "poll-tested for focus groups."

GOP Sen. Jon Kyl told NPR that if Obama intended to persuade Republicans to reconsider their opposition to his health care legislation, he failed. "If it's a matter of tinkering with existing legislation, then the answer is no," Kyl said.

Which Way Forward?

Now both sides — and the American people — are asking where the president goes from here.

Obama's Challenges

  • New NPR poll finds President Obama with a 49 percent approval rating. Of those surveyed, 55 percent said they opposed Obama's proposed health care overhaul.
  • Both the latest NPR poll and a new poll from the Pew Center for the People & the Press found that the top priorities for Americans this year are the economy, jobs, and terrorism.
  • New CNN poll finds 60 percent of Americans say Obama paid more attention to bankers' problems than those of middle class.
  • Republicans say the president should shift from health care and focus on jobs, debt and terrorism.
  • Supporters want Obama to stay the course and make the connection between his proposed health care overhaul and the middle class.

Can he get his own party members under control at a time when even Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are openly feuding? When even members of his own party are blackmailing Obama (see Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson's sweetener for voting for health care), there is no denying that the Democrats need corralling.

Obama and the Democrats over the past year lost control of the narrative: on health care, on climate change, on much of the rest of their agenda.

Wednesday's speech was a step toward recapturing that narrative, but it will very likely prove the easy part.

People are scared, the recession has hit just about every sector — with the exception of a handful of Wall Street bankers — and the White House has rightfully been accused of being out of touch politically.

Democratic strategist Finney was among those wondering what happens next. "Will the staff in the Obama administration deliver on the promise of that speech?" she asked. "Will the Republicans step up and at least make a show of trying to work with the president?"

It's an uncertain road ahead.

"As a candidate, Barack Obama dealt in hope and change," Pitney of Claremont McKenna said. "As a president, he has to deal with reality and his own record. ... He is a gifted orator and he spoke well, but his words will not solve his current political problems."

Obama, bloodied but seemingly unbowed, and his supporters no doubt are hoping that his words, no matter how familiar, are just the start.

"We don't quit," the president said at the close of his speech. "I don't quit."

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