Obama gropes for strategy

John Harris, Politico:

President Barack Obama on Wednesday night tacked to the right with appeals for tax cuts for small business and new investments in off-shore oil drilling and nuclear power. He tacked to the left with renewed vows to let gays serve in the military and to get U.S. troops out of Iraq.

He sounded at times like a Bill Clinton-style centrist, at others like a bank-bashing populist. He taunted Republicans, and also presented himself as a lonely tribune of cooperation and bipartisan civility in Washington.

In a favorable light, his State of the Union speech may have revealed the mind of a leader who has never cared much about traditional ideological categories and is determined to create his own results-oriented composite of ideas from across the spectrum.

Less charitably, the address could be interpreted as the work of a president who is desperately improvising by touching every political erogenous zone he and his advisers can think of.

Under either judgment, however, it was inescapable that his 69-minute speech — for all the rush of words and policy ideas — was a document of downsized ambitions for a downsized moment in his presidency.

It was presented to the Congress and a national audience with all of Obama’s usual fluency and brio. There were flashes of wit, as when he noted ruefully that “by now, it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics.”

And there were flashes of defiance, with Obama delivering what the White House clearly intended to be the headline quote: “We don’t quit; I don’t quit.”

But there was no mistaking throughout this box-checking, loosely bundled speech how different the political context in the winter of 2010 is from the winter of 2009.

Obama came into office promising to shatter expectations of what was possible in Washington. The talk then was of a presidential “big bang” — health care, global warming, and financial reform legislation all in one year — and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel boasted that his motto was to “never let a serious crisis go to waste.”

With the big-bang strategy officially a failure, Obama’s speech revealed in real-time a president groping for a new and more effective one. The speech was woven with frequent acknowledgements that the laws of political gravity applied to him after all.

Harris is more charitable than I. I thought it was a long boring speech that was very yawn worthy. He continues to be a left wing ideologue who insults those who disagree with him. I don't think he changed many minds in Congress and even fewer at home.

The fact is that he and the Democrats did think that their health care grab was good politics when they started it. Even when the evidence mounted in the August recess that many opposed it, they insulted the protesters and voters. The insults continued right up to the vote in Massachusetts, and the snark still has not died with Obama.

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