This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Meet the post-Massachusetts Obama.
In his State of the Union address Wednesday night, the president was all bipartisanship, all political unity, all transcendent American values. All because a single Republican candidate in Massachusetts has punched a hole in what had been an airtight, filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate.
The address was front-loaded with Obama’s concern for “men and women who wake up with the anguish of not knowing where their next paycheck will come from” and a call for the Senate to approve a job-creation bill that has cleared the House of Representatives.
Despite the optimistic tone, Obama’s report of retirement funds that have “started” to regain “some of their value,” and of businesses “beginning to invest again” and “starting to hire again” didn’t sound like vote of a confidence in imminent economic recovery.
Persistent financial pain is one of the forces that put Scott Brown over the top last week; Obama well understands that it could cripple his administration come November if his party isn’t at least perceived as easing the anguish.
The president’s argument for health care reform – his signature issue and hoped-for legacy – was buried more deeply, got much less time and carried a distinct note of chastened contrition. “I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people,” he said.
He pleaded with Congress, “Do not walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close.” Walking away from reform wasn’t on the table before the Democrats lost “Ted Kennedy’s seat” in Massachusetts.
The suddenly opened chasm between House and Senate was the subtext of the address. Obama now needs at least one Republican senator, and probably several, to get anything of note through what has become a ferociously partisan upper chamber.
The president noted, quite accurately, that the economy was in shambles before he walked in the door. That he feels the need to point this out, a brief year after his inauguration, shows the extent to which he’s feeling blamed for forces he didn’t create and can’t defeat in a matter of months.
Still, he pulled his punches against the opposition, aiming only a few good-natured jabs in the direction of the Bush administration and repeatedly asking Republicans to lay down their arms and start putting their fingerprints on Democratic legislation. There were no attempts to lampoon the opposing party into submission, Ronald Reagan-style; Obama – the very soul of reasonableness – seems congenitally incapable of rabble-rousing.
Throughout the address, Vice President Joe Biden sat behind the president, nodding sagely. But the real figure in the background was a Massachusetts Republican who’s just driven his green pickup truck to the U.S. Senate.