WASHINGTON, D.C. — Consider these two statements, both from Minnesota Democrats, on what they want to hear President Obama say in his first State of the Union address, and you’ll get an idea of how steep the uphill path is to unity tonight:
“I want to hear that we’re going to focus on creating jobs and that we’re going to finish health care reform,” said Sen. Al Franken, who is skeptical about Obama’s plans to freeze non-security discretionary spending for three years (saying we “can’t stimulate the economy and unstimulate the economy at the same time.”)
“I want to hear that he understands what people are concerned about, that they think we are out of control as far as spending,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, a centrist Democrat who said the anticipated call to cap spending is a “step in the right direction.” Peterson also said he’s hoping Obama doesn’t propose new spending — “I don’t think this is the time to be doing that” — and that he scales back his health care reform proposal.
That’s not to mention the trouble he’s having with Republicans, who have marched in almost-complete lock step against the biggest parts of his agenda — especially health care reform — so far.
“It is not too late. Only a fraction of the stimulus funds have actually been spent and health care seems to be all but dead in Congress,” wrote Rep. Michele Bachmann in a blog on Townhall.com. “I welcome the President’s spending freeze, but I challenge the Administration not to stop there. If the President is serious about controlling our national debt, he needs to readdress his agenda and stop pushing a national energy tax or government take-over of health care.”
Bachmann will this afternoon deliver what amounts to the Tea Party movement’s preliminary response to the health care part of Obama’s speech when she leads a press conference to deliver her Declaration of Health Care Independence.
Still, the State of the Union is a unique opportunity for any president — an hour to speak to every member of Congress in the same room — and a national, primetime television audience.
“I think it can be the thing that turns things around, and I think he’s got to speak to the people,” said Rep. Keith Ellison.
Rep. Tim Walz said he expects to hear a speech very focused on job creation.
“No secret to everybody that this will be focused on job creation, things we can do to spur, whether it’s infrastructure projects, or whether it’s tax credits, things we can do to spur innovation.”
It’s worth noting that Obama had been able to get votes on much of what he has seriously pushed — contentious or not. The stimulus bill passed relatively easily. A carbon cap-and-trade bill has passed the House. The heaviest lift of all came after months of negotiations, but the House did pass its health care bill followed by a Christmas Eve Senate vote for its health care package.
In fact, a study by Congressional Quarterly earlier this month rated Obama the most successful president in getting his priorities through Congress since it began tracking those things some five decades ago. Better than Dwight D. Eisenhower, better than Ronald Reagan, better even than the previous record-holder, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
However, health care reform efforts took a major blow with the election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, costing Democrats their 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. One can’t forget that 2010 is an election year, and current forecasts have Democrats losing seats in the House and Senate, not atypical for the first election after a presidential change, but still enough to make many in Congress skittish about tough votes.
No doubt the president is a very gifted speaker, but can he bring Democrats together again tonight?
“He’s got a tough job to thread the needle tonight,” Peterson said. “But we’ll see how it goes.”
Derek Wallbank is MinnPost’s Washington, D.C., correspondent and can be reached at wallbank[at]minnpost[dot]com.