The Public Eye: Obama’s State of the Union: 10 Lessons

By Bob Burnett
Thursday February 11, 2010 - 09:45:00 AM

A week after Democrats suffered a stunning defeat, Barack Obama bounced back with a memorable State of the Union address. After a year in office, Obama has to learn 10 lessons. 


Lesson 1: It’s not ideology, it’s the candidate. Scott Brown won the Massachusetts’ Senate race because Martha Coakley was a tepid candidate who ran a bad campaign. 


Lesson 2: Independents will decide the mid-term elections. Massachusetts’ independent voters overwhelmingly preferred Brown, who hid the fact he’s a Republican. In 2008, Obama won 52 percent of the independent vote; now, only 41 percent support him. 


Lesson 3: Voters are angry. Massachusetts’ exit polls indicated that voters were furious about the economy, jobs, and the slow pace in Washington. There’s a widespread perception that Capitol Hill has favored Wall Street over Main Street. 


Lesson 4: At the end of 2009, Democrats appeared to be working on the wrong set of priorities. Massachusetts voters wanted more attention paid to fixing the economy. While Obama’s favorability ratings remain strong, his job approval ratings have fallen because Independents believe the President “doesn’t get it.” 


Lesson 5: Voters may not like Republicans, but they understand their message. Scott Brown ran on the GOP message: lower taxes and a reduced role for government. In 2009, Democrats lost control of the political narrative. They did not link the recession to failed Republican policies or explain that the Democratic stimulus package worked. 


Lesson 6: The president remains the most popular U.S. politician. Despite these grim political realities, Obama got high marks in Massachusetts and even higher poll numbers in the nation after his State of the Union Address. Voters like the president more than they do any other politician. 


Lesson 7: Voters want Obama to get more involved. There’s a widespread perception that the president is too cerebral and, during 2009, didn’t do enough to move things along—he let Congress dictate the pace, which meant that critical legislation languished. 


Lesson 8: Americans want bipartisanship. Voters expect Democrats and Republican to work together to solve the difficult problems facing the United States. While Scott Brown ran on the Republican mantra, exit polls indicated that voters wanted him to work with Obama and Congressional Democrats. 


Lesson 9: Republicans offer no solutions. The GOP agenda is Nobama. Scott Brown didn’t offer solutions; he was an outlet for voter anger. 


Lesson 10: The president needs better advisers. Interviewed in the London Times, Law Professor Chris Edley, Barack’s mentor and sometimes adviser observed, “You’re not going to reinvent Barack into somebody who delights in pummeling a policy opponent, so his staff need to do that for him. And as far as one can tell from the outside, that is precisely what Rahm Emanuel has failed to do.” 


President Obama’s Jan. 27 State of the Union address indicated that he has learned some of these lessons. The speech was oriented towards independents and addressed their concerns about the economy and the lack of civility on Capitol Hill. 

Obama reassured voters that he feels their pain. “The worst of the storm has passed. But the devastation remains.” After defending his 2009 stimulus package, the president proposed a short-term job creation initiative that includes a tax on the biggest banks, aid to community banks and small businesses, and new infrastructure and clean energy projects. 

Asserting the United States needs “a new foundation for long-term growth,” Obama proposed “serious financial reform,” “a comprehensive energy and climate change bill,” and a “National Export Initiative.” He coupled this with new education programs, further mortgage assistance for struggling homeowners, and comprehensive healthcare reform. 

After the economy, voters are most concerned about the federal deficit. Obama set the record straight: “By the time I took office, [the United States] had a one year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade.” After proposing specific steps to bring down the deficit, the president noted that Republicans believe, “that if we just make fewer investments in our people, extend tax cuts for wealthier Americans, eliminate more regulations, and maintain the status quo on health care, our deficits will go away. The problem is, that’s what we did for eight years. That’s what helped lead us into the crisis.” 

Obama concluded his speech with a call for bipartisanship. He scolded both Republicans and Democrats. (And admonished the Senate for not advancing needed critical legislation passed in the House.) 

The president’s speech ended on a strong note: “We don’t quit. I don’t quit.” While Obama is in it for the long haul, it’s not clear about his staff. 

As he prepared his State of the Union address, Obama recalled David Plouffe, his 2008 campaign manager, to oversee Democratic strategy for the mid-term elections. What remains to be seen is what other staff changes will occur. Will Rahm Emanuel be replaced? Will the president hire someone to pummel the Senate and force them to pass necessary legislation? Will Obama get more engaged? 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at