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Why Won't Obama Hear Our Call?

In a speech at the University of Denver in 2008 just days before the Super Tuesday primaries, then-Senator Barack Obama said :

‘‘Democrats will win in November and build a majority in Congress not by nominating a candidate who will unite the other party against us, but by choosing one who can unite this country around a movement for change.”

Well, a year into his presidency Obama finds Republicans -- in both houses of Congress -- as well as moderate and independent voters, united against his expensive and unpopular agenda, and he made it clear that the White House is "not hitting a reset button at all," as his adviser Valerie Jarrett asserted on “Meet the Press” in an interview that previewed many of the themes and rationales that were in Obama’s State of the Union address

So the pundits who predicted Obama would pivot, move to the center and admit his mistakes were wrong:

As USA Today’s Chuck Raasch notes:

Obama reaffirmed his core policies and principles and pivoted to a more robust public relations offensive to defend both his record and his ideas as he sought to regain both legislative momentum and public confidence.

He reminded his national audience of the state of the union he inherited a year ago, with record deficits and a spiraling economy, and in plain language defended his actions and pushed for more: a jobs bill, tax credits for small business, clean energy spending, a freeze on a small part of the federal budget, and most significantly, passage of health care reform.

In some ways, it was an extension of his campaign platform a year into his presidency.

'"I never said change would be easy," he said, rekindling his Change You Can Believe In campaign slogan. "Let's seize this moment to start anew."

Anyone seeking a course correction in the 69-minute address likely came away disappointed.

What Steven Thomma of McClatchy Newspapers heard is “a Reaganesque mantra: Stay the course”:

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.

As The Washington Times presciently pointed out a couple of days before Obama’s State of the Union address: 

“Mr. Obama is in a state of denial. His party's losses in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts all sent the message that the American people want the party in power to govern more wisely. … Mr. Obama pledges to keep on fighting, but pushing harder for ruinously bad policies is not populism; it is political suicide.”

Three other things that didn’t change:

1. Continuing to blame President George Bush

"One year ago, I took office amid two wars, an economy rocked by severe recession, a financial system on the verge of collapse, and a government deeply in debt. … By the time I took office, we had a one year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. That was before I walked in the door."

The only thing Obama gave Bush credit for was the bank bailout program that “we all hated” and “was about as popular as a root canal.”

2. Self-absorption and false modesty

"I know the anxieties that are out there right now. … These struggles are the reason I ran for president. These struggles are what I've witnessed for years in places like Elkhart, Indiana and Galesburg, Illinois. I hear about them in the letters that I read each night. … when I ran for President, I promised I wouldn't just do what was popular I would do what was necessary … From the day I took office, I have been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious that such efforts would be too contentious, that our political system is too gridlocked, and that we should just put things on hold for awhile. … I did not choose to tackle [healthcare] to get some legislative victory under my belt. … Now, I am not nave. I never thought the mere fact of my election would usher in peace, harmony, and some post-partisan era.”

I, I, I. Even the towns Obama cites are in states that begin with “I.” It’s his favorite letter, isn’t it?

3. Not owning up to his mistakes

Rather than admitting the mistakes that stalled his agenda, Obama deflected responsibility for his failure to lead to not only "Wall Street," and "Republicans," but also to Washington pundits:

[W]hat frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. … But it is precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it is sowing further division among our citizens and further distrust in our government. … If the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty 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. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. … [E]ach time a CEO rewards himself for failure, or a banker puts the rest of us at risk for his own selfish gain, people's doubts grow. Each time lobbyists game the system or politicians tear each other down instead of lifting this country up, we lose faith. The more that TV pundits reduce serious debates into silly arguments, and big issues into sound bites, our citizens turn away. … I campaigned on the promise of change, change we can believe in … I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone. … Our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved."

The closest Obama came to acknowledging that he has fallen short in any way came in this passage:

"I take my share of the blame for not explaining [healthcare] more clearly to the American people. And I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, this process left most Americans wondering what's in it for them. … We are filling unacceptable gaps revealed by the failed Christmas attack, with better airline security, and swifter action on our intelligence".

Obama started his address with a brief retrospective of rocky periods in the nation’s history, and said: “Again, we are tested. And again, we must answer history's call.”

This time, though, it is about him. Obama is the one being tested. The takeaway message from the elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts is that rather than pursuing a sweeping agenda like FDR’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society, Obama needs to answer the call of the American people who want smaller government, lower taxes and deficit reduction. Will he ever pick up the ringing phone?

The Stiletto blogs at TheStilettoBlog.com.