Obama's first State of the Union: Jobs must be our No. 1 focus

President Barack Obama on Wednesday called on Democrats and Republicans to overcome “the numbing weight of our politics” in a State of the Union address that emphasized jobs and the economy.

With the unemployment rate at 10 percent, Obama sought to reassure the country that he and the Congress are committed to creating jobs.

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Obama insisted the much-criticized $787 billion economic stimulus had stemmed job losses and averted economic disaster, but also acknowledged that many are still feeling economic pain.

“That is why jobs must be our number one focus in 2010, and that is why I am calling for a new jobs bill tonight,” Obama said. “People are out of work. They are hurting. They need our help. And I want a jobs bill on my desk without delay.”

Obama called for sending $30 billion of the money repaid by bailed-out Wall Street banks to be used to help community banks give small businesses credit.

The emphasis on jobs was also a nod to anxious Democratic lawmakers who had urged the president to devote most of his speech to the economy.

Another large portion of the address focused on fiscal discipline. Obama is facing a $1.35 trillion deficit, and he spelled out his proposed freeze on non-defense-related discretionary spending that will be reflected in his budget next week.

But Obama said the problem facing Congress is about more than the deficit of dollars: “We face a deficit of trust, deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years.”

“And what the American people hope — what they deserve — is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics.”

The president spoke just more than a week after the shocking loss for Democrats of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) seat to Republican Scott Brown. The loss was a severe political blow to Obama, both because it deprives him of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and because of the message it appeared to send about confidence in Democratic leadership in Washington.

Obama acknowledged the result, stating that “after last week, it is clear that campaign season has come even earlier than usual.”

The results of the election, Obama suggested, have lessons for both parties.

“To 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 said.

Obama warned Republicans they could suffer if the public sees them as filling the “party of no” role that Democrats have spent much of the year casting them as.

“And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the
responsibility to govern is now yours as well,” Obama said. “Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership.”

Obama’s approval ratings have dropped to under 50 percent in some recent daily tracking polls. Sixty-one percent said the country is on the wrong track in a survey released Wednesday by the bipartisan group Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Sixty-three percent in that poll said Obama and Congress should be prioritizing jobs and the economy.

Brown’s win also put healthcare reform, the keystone legislative goal of Obama’s first year in office, in serious jeopardy.

Obama did not speak about healthcare reform until midway through his speech, but when he did, he acknowledged mistakes.

“I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people,” Obama said. “And I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, this process left most Americans wondering what’s in it for them.”

But he reiterated his determination to move forward with comprehensive legislation, and urged Congress to renew its efforts.

“Do not walk away from reform,” he said. “Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people.”

He also struck a populist note that has become more common in recent weeks.

“By the time I’m finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance,” he said. “Premiums will go up. Co-pays will go up. Patients will be denied the care they need.

“I will not walk away from these Americans,” he said. “And neither should the people in this chamber.”

Liberals are worried the man they campaigned for has drifted to the center, and they pounced on the spending freeze earlier this week, which does not apply to defense and homeland security programs.

Republicans responding to Obama’s address repeated their criticism that he has tried to do too much as president, and that he misinterpreted his 2008 victory as a mandate to change the country.


“People wanted President Obama to change Washington, not change America,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a statement.

Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, whose election in November was seen as an early sign of a GOP comeback, delivered the official Republican response.

“Today, the federal government is simply trying to do too much,” he said. "Obama hailed investments in homeland security he said had foiled terrorist plots. He said gaps that led to the failed Christmas Day bombing in Detroit were being filled. He also chose to reiterate his support for ending the ban on gays in the military."

Obama again took aim at lobbyists, calling for legislation to limit their campaign contributions and to disclose their contacts with administration officials. To close a credibility gap, he said the action must be taken to limit the role of lobbyists in policymaking.

The president spoke for about 70 minutes and was interrupted 86 times by applause.

Obama will head to Florida on Thursday to announce a new high-speed rail project affecting several states. The trip is part of an effort to bring the messages from the State of the Union address across the country in a variety of stops. Obama will also travel to New Hampshire, another swing state, after the speech.

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