Politics & Government

2010: Analysis: Obama channels Reagan, 'Stay the course'

President Barack Obama gives his first State of the Union address.
President Barack Obama gives his first State of the Union address. Olivier Douliery / Abaca Press / MCT

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's message to the country Wednesday night boiled down to a Reaganesque mantra: Stay the course.

Stick with the man they elected 14 months ago to change Washington. Trust that his stimulus plan, now projected to cost $862 billion, is lifting the country out of its worst economic mess in 80 years. Push forward to enact the rest of his blueprint, including at least some overhaul of the country's health care system, to build a strong recovery.

Sure, Obama tried to tap into the voter anger and anxiety about the economy in his first State of the Union address, hoping to channel it rather than being overrun by it, as the Democratic Party in Massachusetts was last week. He added some new proposals, such as $30 billion to small banks to encourage lending and tax breaks for small businesses, calling them just more steps in his plan to grow the economy and create jobs. He also vowed to start reining in soaring budget deficits.

Yet despite the stinging defeat his party suffered in Massachusetts, the erosion of his own political support and calls from Republicans and moderate Democrats to change his agenda, Obama signaled that he'll make no abrupt turn from the path he set more than a year ago.

Nothing like the change that the first President George Bush made when he bowed to soaring budget deficits in 1990 and broke his "read my lips" campaign promise not to raise taxes. Nothing like Bill Clinton's move to the center after the Democrats lost Congress in 1994, when he declared in his 1996 State of the Union that "the era of big government is over."

Rather, Obama in 2010 channeled a bit of Ronald Reagan, circa 1982.

Entering his second year in office, Reagan also faced high unemployment, rising anxiety and sinking poll numbers. His response? Tell the country and Congress to hold on and trust that his programs would work.

"Our task is to persevere," Reagan said in his February 1982 budget message to Congress. "To stay the course, to shun retreat, to weather the temporary dislocations and pressures that must inevitably accompany the restoration of national economic, fiscal and military health."

Like Reagan, Obama reminded Americans what a mess he inherited when he took office. While they differ in style and policy — Reagan said government was the problem, not the solution; Obama argued the opposite Wednesday — Obama took a similar, damn-the-political-torpedoes, full-steam-ahead approach.

"To Democrats," Obama said, "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."

First, he tried to convince the country that his economic program is working, even if people aren't feeling the benefits yet.

"Because of the steps we took, there are about 2 million Americans working right now who would otherwise be unemployed," he said. "And we are on track to add another one and a half million jobs to this total by the end of the year. "

That's been a tough sell, as the country has lost 3.5 million jobs since Obama took office, but he tried again. "Economists on the left and the right say that this bill has helped saved jobs and avert disaster," he said.

Second, the president tried to assure Americans that he has more ideas to create jobs, including tax credits for small businesses that hire more people, more spending to build or repair the nation's infrastructure and money for energy conservation.

All were in line with his agenda for the last year.

He also pushed anew for health care legislation and financial regulation, both of which he's been seeking for months.

"By the time I'm finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance," he said, maintaining as much or more emphasis on helping the uninsured as on controlling costs for those who have coverage.

"As temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we've proposed."

Perhaps in irony, perhaps by design, Obama's message may be welcome news to the left and the right.

The left because liberals are angry or dispirited that he hasn't pushed through more of his agenda on issues such as financial regulation and health care.

The right because it can use the president's proposals to keep the conservative base at fever pitch heading into November's elections, when the entire House of Representatives, 37 seats in the 100-seat Senate and 39 of 50 governor's offices are up for election.

Republicans already have used the loss of millions of jobs on Obama's watch to portray his policies as a failure and his agenda as a threat. By linking economic anxiety to sky-high federal spending and warning of perils in a still-impenetrable health care proposal, they've turned out voters against Democratic candidates not only in Massachusetts but also in New Jersey and Virginia, and they probably will continue doing so into the fall.

Many Democrats argue that the only way to hold their base and re-energize the voters who turned out for Obama in 2008 — idealistic young people, independents and the working class — is to tune out complaints from conservatives and push through the agenda that Obama promised in 2008.

Ultimately, it probably will take more than a speech for Obama to rally the country — and thus the Congress — to his agenda.

History shows that presidents rarely, if ever, get bounces out of the annual ritual. Since the 1970s, Clinton was the only president to get any kind of bump in his approval ratings, according to Gallup, with an average increase of 3 percentage points after his State of the Union addresses. Jimmy Carter, Reagan and George W. Bush each lost an average of 1 point, and George H.W. Bush lost an average of 4 points.


Obama to emphasize jobs, economy in State of the Union

Senate says 'no' to federal debt commission Obama endorsed

South Carolina's Wilson promises he'll be quiet this time

For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington

Related stories from McClatchy DC