Obama’s State of the Union Pivotal

Carl Leubsdorf

In the wake of the stunning loss of Edward Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, next Wednesday’s State of the Union speech can’t come too soon for President Barack Obama.

That annual, high-profile ritual, with its massive national and global listening and viewing audience, offers a beleaguered president the best chance to refocus his administration and restore his tattered political fortunes.

It may take all of Obama’s considerable oratorical skill to pivot from his yearlong effort to enact an extensive, expensive and ultimately unpopular agenda featuring comprehensive health reform to one more narrowly focused on the struggling economy and the budget deficit that both parties’ profligacy has caused to explode again in recent years.

The White House took one step Tuesday by agreeing with Democratic congressional leaders to create a high-level commission with the authority to recommend budget-control measures that lawmakers would vote on after November’s mid-term elections.

The idea, the brainchild of some of Congress’ chief deficit hawks, is designed to overcome the fact that congressional Democrats inherently resist budget-control measures that would curb their authority to set federal spending, while Republicans similarly oppose any proposals that would increase federal taxes.

The reported agreement apparently stops short of adopting the procedure that worked so well in former Texas Rep. Dick Armey’s military base closing plan by putting the panel’s proposals into effect unless blocked by votes of both houses of Congress.

It would ensure votes in the House and Senate on the proposals, though they could be amended. And some skeptics already fear it may prove impossible to achieve the requirement that proposals receive the support of 14 members of an 18-member panel likely to include 10 Democrats and eight Republicans.

That will require a degree of compromise from both parties that has lacked throughout the health care debate and on many other issues.

Meanwhile, Obama and the Democrats have to decide whether to scrap the yearlong health care bid or find a way to enact a bill that, despite much-publicized flaws and the acrimonious debate, still contains more good than bad.

Party leaders, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were still talking Tuesday night about proceeding on health care, even as it became evident that Republican Scott Brown had scored a monumental upset in the Massachusetts Senate race.

But members are reluctant to spend much more time on the contentious issue, and the reality of Brown’s victory means some options have fallen by the wayside — along with the Democrats’ filibuster-proof Senate majority.

Conservative Democrats, led by Virginia’s James Webb, made clear they would block any effort to muscle a compromise health care bill through the Senate before Brown arrives.

And though some Democrats still hope to woo one of the handful of GOP moderates who favor some sort of comprehensive bill, the day seems to have passed for separating Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe from her fellow Republicans.

The only remaining option is probably to pass the Senate version of health care reform in the House. But that, too, may prove impossible, judging from many House Democrats’ public comments, though it may still be in the party’s long-term interest to show it can cope with such long-festering issues.

That’s why some Democrats still want Obama to persist in trying to deliver on his initial agenda. Yet he may have too much at stake to do only that, including the likely nomination this summer of a Supreme Court justice because of 89-year-old John Paul Stevens’ expected retirement.

To succeed, Obama will have to reach out to the Republicans and try to restore the sense of post-partisanship he conveyed in his campaign.

Of course, there’s no guarantee Republicans will cooperate. For example, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, a leading GOP deficit critic, called the commission plan “a fraud” aimed at protecting Democrats politically.

That attitude would confirm fears that their unexpected Massachusetts success will energize Republicans to keep trying to frustrate Obama, lest they give him a chance to show that he and the Democrats can actually govern and resolve major national problems.

As a result of all this, Obama faces a pretty bleak outlook on the day he begins his second year in office. Still, presidents always have an opportunity to correct their course, and next week’s State of the Union speech will provide his first major opportunity to do so.

The above column was originally published Jan. 21 by The Dallas Morning News. Content was made available by MCTCampus.