Obama Sets Terms for Domestic Policy Debate

Posted February 24, 2009 at 9:56pm

President Barack Obama came to Capitol Hill Tuesday evening with a message of hope, offering words intended to inspire the country and initiatives designed to boost its wilting economy. “While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken – though we are living through difficult and uncertain times – tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before,” Obama said in his first address to a joint session of Congress. Mostly gone was the recitation of the country’s ills and the perils ahead made so often by the president as he sought to strengthen the rationale for what in the end became a $787 billion stimulus bill. Instead, Obama sought to set the tone for the year with soaring rhetoric, calls for bipartisanship and a list of programs that could easily divide Congress as lawmakers figure out where they will find the money for them. “I know that we haven’t agreed on every issue thus far, and there are surely times in the future when we will part ways,” Obama said. “But I also know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed. That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months, and where we return after those debates are done.” Even as he sought to forge bipartisanship, lawmakers on opposing sides of the aisle competed as usual to top the volume of each other’s applause for initiatives they support – and know the other side opposes. At one point, when both sides joined in cheering a call to reduce the debt, Obama noted ironically that he had finally discovered some bipartisanship. How Obama will pay the bills for his proposals will become clearer when he releases his budget next week. His program is ambitious. The president espoused increases in the number of soldiers and Marines, expanded health care and benefits for veterans, and new spending on education, health and energy. Health care reform, he vowed, is coming this year. “Let there be no doubt: Health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait and it will not wait another year.” Obama indicated new aid is in waiting for automakers. “I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it,” he declared. He proposed what seemed a revival of President Richard Nixon’s “war on cancer,” suggesting there will be funds to find “a cure for cancer in our time.” And he promised to make a full education available to all. “It will be the goal of this administration to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education – from the day they are born to the day they begin a career,” Obama said. It was on education that Obama found some policy common ground to match his rhetoric of bipartisanship. He outlined a series of educational reforms – some more associated with Republicans – that received relatively tepid applause from the overwhelmingly Democratic chamber. Among them were incentives for teacher performance and a commitment to charter schools. “We know that our schools don’t just need more resources,” Obama said. “They need more reform.” Obama outlined a few ideas for holding down the deficit, pointing the way toward spending reductions. But in this, ironically, he may foster an unintended bipartisanship, since such cuts are certain to be applauded in principle and then attract plenty of bipartisan Congressional opposition on the particulars. “I’m proud that we passed the recovery plan free of earmarks,” Obama, said, drawing some skeptical scoffing. “I want to pass a budget next year that ensures that each dollar we spend reflects only our most important national priorities,” he said. He listed a series of items to cut, including funding for agribusiness, “no-bid contracts in Iraq” and a plan to “reform our defense budget so that we’re not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don’t use.” Even with the country fighting two wars and battling to prevent another terrorist attack, Obama spent relatively little time on national security and almost none of foreign policy. His goals are domestic, and Tuesday night he told Congress he is committed to achieving them.