Obama: "We do not give up. We do not quit"

The president delivers his first State of the Union address, but not the way he wanted to

By Alex Koppelman
Published January 28, 2010 2:15AM (EST)

10: 30 p.m.: I've been watching CNN, so I couldn't really believe Chris Matthews had said this when I first saw the quote popping up on Twitter, but I'm informed it's true: After the speech, the anchor said of Obama, "I forgot he was black tonight for an hour."

Normally, this is the part where I'd try to say something witty, but I'm literally speechless.

10:22 p.m.: And that's a wrap. What did you think? Up to Obama's usual standard? Effective? Enough to get a little momentum back on his side? Let us know in comments. Up next, the Republican reaction.

10:10 p.m.: There haven't been any "You lie!" moments from the Republican side of the aisle tonight. Democratic operatives are bound to be a little disappointed by that; they'd been pushing hard to get reporters and voters to remember that incident in the run-up to this speech. But they've found some fodder anyway, in the Republicans' hesitance to get up and applaud for some of the things Obama said.

Democratic National Committee Communications Director Brad Woodhouse e-mailed reporters a minute ago with a video of one of those moments, Republicans not applauding the president's proposal for a tax to recoup bank bailout funds. Count on them continuing to hit the GOP with this one -- it's here.

10:05 p.m.: If there's one line of this speech that gets remembered come the midterm elections in November, it will be this one: "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."

Obama got in his shot at Republican partisanship too, of course, but this is exactly right, and it could end up being a real problem for Congressional Democrats this fall. They can't just get by with an argument about GOP obstruction; even voters in Massachusetts, knowing what Scott Brown's victory in the special election there would mean for the balance of power, essentially rejected that argument. It might work some other year, maybe, but not when the nation has as many economic problems as it does right now, and not when the Congress has spent a full year already debating big issues like healthcare reform.

9:58 p.m.: Obama's been going off-script a bit, tossing in little asides that are half-joking but also half about getting his own shots in. One particularly notable example: When the president mentioned that his proposed spending freeze wouldn't go into effect until next year, some Republicans laughed derisively. Obama tossed in a little response, saying, "That's how budgeting works." Which is, well, true.

Of course, while Congress isn't exactly a brain-trust, it's pretty likely that those laughing did actually know that -- that spending is personally important to them and their careers. Their point is more about the spending he's already done, which they believe was irresponsible; they think the freeze isn't enough of a countermeasure.

9:51 p.m.: After a decent amount of time spent putting the deficit squarely on his predecessor's shoulders, Obama finally gets to the big proposal of his speech, the three-year freeze of discretionary non-defense spending that the White House announced earlier this week. And it comes with a threat: "If I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will," Obama says. Many of the Democrats in attendance stand and applaud, but they do so grudgingly, at best. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, seated behind Obama, doesn't look happy.

Still no details on the painful bits -- presumably the White House doesn't want fighting over specific cuts that will have to be made raining on the president's parade. That information will come out with the administration's budget proposal on Monday.

9:42 p.m.: It's not going to come until nearly the end of the speech, but one thing I wanted to note: I was a little surprised when, Wednesday afternoon, CNN announced in a breaking news alert that Obama would be addressing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and calling on Congress to end it.

In a conference call held a few hours earlier, the White House had briefed reporters on the general outline of the speech (those on the call weren't allowed to run with what was said during it until the president hit the podium). One of the things that came up was DADT. From what Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said at the time, it was prety clear that the president's mention of the issue wasn't going to be earthshaking -- he described it as a "broad reiteration" of Obama's longstanding position. And that's exactly what it is; a single sentence that doesn't really guarantee much in the way of action.

"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are," Obama will say, according to the prepared text. That's it.

9:29 p.m.: One interesting little tidbit, part of the theater that are the standing ovations during this speech -- when Obama called upon the Senate to pass the jobs bill already approved by the House, he got a big round of applause from the Democratic side of the aisle. A good bit of that seemed to be directed by House Democrats at their Senate counterparts. There's been more than a little tension between the two groups of late over the difficulty of passing bills through the upper chamber.


This is not the atmosphere that the White House wanted for President Obama's first State of the Union. If they'd had their druthers, healthcare reform would have been passed by now -- really, they would have liked it passed months ago, but at the very least they wanted it done in time for Obama to trumpet it now. And they'd certainly not have him coming to face Congress knowing that a Republican just won Sen. Ted Kennedy's old seat, that his polling numbers are slipping; in short, they didn't want him playing defense at this moment.

But he is.

You'll be able to tell that very early on in the president's speech tonight, when, according to the prepared text released by the White House, he'll say, "[I]f there’s one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans, it’s that we all hated the bank bailout. I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal."

Of course, he'll go on to say, "But when I ran for President, I promised I wouldn’t just do what was popular -- I would do what was necessary."  But this is more than just the usual attempt to come off as a leader, something more than the usual poll-tested politician; he simply has to do things like run away from the bailout in order to get back on offense.

Before he does that, though, Obama will spend much of his speech on the economy -- and, more specifically, on jobs. In part, that's an attempt to change Americans' minds about the stimulus. But it's also about that populist tack he's taken recently, an attempt to acknowledge and harness that disaffection and anger roiling American politics.

Obama will, of course, also be talking healthcare reform. He has to; it's the spectre looming over the whole House chamber tonight. Plus, though Obama's policies might not be very popular right now, he is, and this is a very rare opportunity for him to try to sway public opinion -- and thus, reform supporters will hope -- Congress.

For the most part, during the time Obama is talking healthcare, he'll be doing so from back on his heels, trying to apologize and explain and persuade.

"I did not choose to tackle this issue to get some legislative victory under my belt. And by now it should be fairly obvious that I didn’t take on health care because it was good politics," Obama will say. "[T]his is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people. And I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, this process left most Americans wondering what’s in it for them."

These are only parts of a speech that's expected to go for about 75 minutes once all the ritual applause from Congress is factored in. We'll have updates as he goes along, as well as coverage of the official Republican response, being delivered by new Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and reaction from all across the spectrum.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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