The All of the Above President

Going into last night’s high-stakes State of the Union Address, the political world was wondering how President Obama would respond to a series of political setbacks that culminated with Republican Scott Brown’s surprise victory in last week’s Massachusetts Senate race.

Would he move to the center or try to rally his liberal base? Would he retreat from comprehensive health care legislation or dig in his heels? Would his tone be feisty or conciliatory?

As is often the case with Obama, the answer turned out to be: all of the above.

In a flatly-delivered, 70-minute speech, Obama made several nods to conservatives by talking tax and spending cuts, while at the same time refusing to abandon the liberal agenda items he outlined last year.

When it came to the economy, Obama endorsed many conservative criticisms of his policies. “[T]he true engine of job creation in this country will always be America’s businesses,” he declared. He called for earmark reform. And in an affront to Keynesians who argue that deficit spending is necessary to boost an ailing economy, he said, “families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.”

Yet he continued to talk up government spending as a means to spur economic growth, and called for a second stimulus bill.

Obama urged the Senate to follow the lead of the House and pass legislation aimed at limiting carbon emissions, but only after calling for building nuclear power plants and increasing offshore oil drilling.

While he spent most of his first year in office pushing health care legislation as his top domestic priority, in last night’s speech it was relegated to second-class status. Still important, yes, and still worth fighting for — but one priority amid a laundry list of goals that typically make up State of the Union speeches.

It took him nearly a half hour to raise the issue, and he glossed over it quickly, only dedicating roughly 7 percent of the speech to the topic, based on the word count of his prepared remarks. One could interpret his actual comments on health care either as defiant or defeatist.

On the one hand, he gave hope to liberals who were worried he was eager to abandon the issue after Brown’s win threw a monkey wrench into Democrats’ plans to pass legislation. Speaking of those struggling with the current health care system, Obama said, “I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber.” He later added, “Do not walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people.”

Yet at the same time, he acknowledged that “this is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became” and suggested that there may need to be time to let “temperatures cool” before people take another look at the legislation. He also claimed that he was still open to new ideas from those in “either party.”

The idea of restoring bipartisanship was part of a broader theme of his speech, and he proposed monthly meetings with Republicans. But he pinned most of the blame for the polarized climate on Republicans, lashing out at them for abusing the filibuster. He said that “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.”

While Obama’s speech may poll well initially, as is always the case with Obama, the reality will soon undermine his rhetoric.

He can’t claim to be a tax cutter while pushing for a national energy tax, promoting a health care bill that hikes taxes on the middle class through the individual mandate, and allowing for a massive tax increase when the Bush tax cuts expire. He can’t tout his economic policies if job losses continue to mount and unemployment remains higher than he promised when he sold Americans on the stimulus bill.

It’s easy to talk a big game about deficit reduction during the State of the Union Address, as presidents often do, but it’s another thing to actually make difficult choices and take action to limit spending. And stories will continue to emerge that will contradict his promises of fiscal restraint. Just this week, for instance, the Congressional Budget Office revealed that the economic stimulus bill would cost $75 billion more than initially projected, and that the federal deficit would be $1.35 trillion in 2010.

When it comes to health care, Obama will either exert pressure on reluctant Democrats to get the bill across the finish line, or he’ll recognize the difficulty of doing so and let the initiative wither and die. If he chooses to push ahead, the most talked about option among Democrats right now is for the House to pass the Senate bill, while making changes in a separate bill using the reconciliation process that requires just 51 votes in the Senate. This would mean that after telling the nation that he wanted to work together with Republicans and integrate their ideas, the response would be to cut Republicans out of the process entirely and ram the bill through in the most partisan way possible.

In his annual speech to Congress, Obama was able to choose all of the above. But during the year, he’ll actually have to make decisions, and Americans will continue to judge him based on the results.

SOTU

During the speech, I’ll be providing updates via Twitter at: http://twitter.com/philipaklein

I’ll wrap up my thoughts here on the blog after Obama is done speaking.

To Rush or Not to Rush?

As they await some sort of signal from President Obama on a path forward on health care during tonight’s State of the Union Address, Democrats appear to be divided not only on how to proceed, but how quickly to do so.

Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (who argued during last month’s Senate debate that urgent action was needed to prevent deaths), declared, “There is no rush.”

But today, according to the Politico, Sen. Bob Casey said that the clock was ticking:

“I think [the window] is maybe multiple weeks at the most,” Casey said at press conference touting new jobs initiatives. “[It] gets more and more difficult to convey a sense of an urgency on jobs when you’re talking about two or three different issues instead of one.”

My bet is that Casey’s statement is probably closer to the truth, but we’ll have a better sense of the health care politics based on Obama’s speech tonight, and how rank-and-file Democrats respond to it.

Nelson Keeps Digging

In trouble at home and looking even more silly after Scott Brown’s victory, Sen. Ben Nelson is now trying to claim that all along, he had planned to filibuster the health care bill before the final vote if the merged bill that came back from conference didn’t include the House’s more restrictive abortion language. During last month’s debate, the Nebraska Senator introduced the Nelson/Hatch amendment on federal funding for abortion that was essentially the same as the Stupak language in the House bill. The amendment failed, but Nelson voted for the Senate bill anyway, after famously negotiating the “Cornhusker kickback” in which the federal government picked up the full tab for the bill’s Medicaid expansion for Nebraska and only Nebraska.

In an interview yesterday with LifeSiteNews, Nelson tried to argue that voting for the Senate bill that did not include his preferred abortion language was all part of his grand strategy to make sure that language was in the final bill:

NELSON: Well, Friday night — what happened, whatever night it was, we got the commitment that the public option was gone, I scrubbed dozens of other things out of it that federalized the bill to take it out — I defederalized it so that it would be a state option, not a national option.  There would be no public option.  It would be state-based.  It would be private markets to keep the FTC out, to keep the Health and Human Services out unless invited in and all kinds of other things.  When we got all those things done, then I could support the bill the way that it was — knowing that when I went to conference, that I could come back with Nelson/Hatch/Casey.  

LSN: OK, so you were planning on coming backâ€_

NELSON: Absolutely.  That is what I was just trying to tell the gentleman who was arguing about the 60th vote.  

LSN: What made you think that it had a shot, after conference?

NELSON: Because they needed 60 votes again.

LSN: Right, but before, you voted for it even without it — 

NELSON: To get it there.  Right.  I know — with my language which was better than the language in the bill.  But, once it went to conference, as part of the conference, there was still another 60 vote threshold, and that is when I would have insisted and that is what Christy was talking about when I mentioned this on the phone — how we would approach this in conference to say, for my last 60th vote, it has to have Nelson/Hatch/Casey.

It goes without saying that this is completely absurd. Nelson’s leverage was at its peak when Democrats were desperate to pass the Senate health care bill before Christmas, and if he was going to take a principled stand, that was the time to do it. Now that Brown’s victory has has made him largely irrelevant, it’s easy to say that he was prepared to hold up the bill over abortion language. It is pretty amusing, nonetheless, to see how he tries to squirm his way out of the situation like a second grader in the principal’s office.

(Via Wonkroom)

Poll: Just 30 Percent Want Congress to Pass HC Bill Similar to Current One

With Democrats scrambling to find a way to pass the Senate health care bill through the House (with fixes made through reconciliation) a new CNN poll finds that just three out of 10 Americans actually want Congress to pass a bill similar to the one being considered. A plurality of 48 percent want Congress to start over, while 21 percent want lawmakers to stop working on health care altogether.

Overall, just 38 percent say they “generally favor” the health care bills passed in the House and Senate while 58 percent “generally oppose” them — a 20 point gap.

CBO: Stimulus $75 Bln More Expensive Than Estimated

This isn’t the headline that President Obama wanted heading into his State of the Union address as he promises to rein in budget deficits and makes a last ditch effort to boost public support for his health care legislation. But today, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that his signature domestic achievement to date — the economic stimulus package — cost more than the $787 billion it originally estimated. On page 113 of its Budget and Economic Outlook for 2010 to 2010, CBO tells us:

Looking ahead, it appears that ARRA will have larger effects in later years than originally estimated. All told, CBO now anticipates that the law will increase deficits by $862 billion between 2009 and 2019…

There’s a reason why just 15 percent of Americans think that Obamacare will reduce the deficit even in the more favorable polls cited by Democrats. Americans know that government programs often cost more than promised. In the wake of today’s announcement that not only has the last big legislation the Democrats passed failed to deliver the promised jobs but has cost more than anticipated, how will Obama argue that passing the Democratic health care bill will expand coverage and cut the deficit without rationing care?

Lincoln, Bayh, Nelson Come Out Against Reconciliation

Three Senate Democrats who find themselves in political hot water back at home have come out opposed to using the reconciliation process to ram through a comprehensive health care bill. Sen. Blanche Lincoln said earlier today that she would fight any attempt to use reconciliation and Sen. Bayh said he would “consel against” its use. Also today, Sen. Ben Nelson’s office said he opposed the maneuver. 

Democrats could technically afford to lose Lincoln, Bayh, Nelson and 6 more Senators and still theoretically pass a bill through reconciliation, because they only need 50 votes plus Joe Biden as the tie-breaker. But the more moderates defect from the party line and portray reconciliation as an ugly process that should be avoided, the more difficult it will be for Democratic leadership to counter Republican attacks on its use.

Hike Then Freeze

Alex Conant makes a valid point about the Obama administration’s proposed 2011-13 spending “freeze.” Under the existing Obama budget, it was already assumed that spending would surge as a result of efforts to prop up the economy during the recession, and then begin to decline during the 2011 to 2013 period before starting to tick up again.

According to a chart in the Office of Management and Budget’s mid-session review released last August (page 28), discretionary non-defense spending was on pace to explode from $508 billion in 2008 to $681 billion in 2010. Starting in 2011, according to OMB estimates, that number would begin to taper off, dropping to $639 billion in 2011; $607 billion in 2012; and bottoming out at $595 billion in 2013. We’ll have to wait until next week for more details, but based on what we know now, if Obama’s “freezes” spending at 2011 levels, it may actually represent an increase over what spending aticipated by his earlier budget.

White House to Reveal Programs Affected By Freeze Next Monday

Rob Nabors, the deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget , declined on a Tuesday conference call to reveal which programs would be affected by the Obama administration’s proposed freeze on non-discretionary defense spending.

Nabors told reporters that the administration has been going through the federal budget “line by line” to make sure that Obama’s domestic priorities were fully funded, while cutting other aspects of the budget that were not necessary  during lean times. But he said the public would have to wait until next Monday, when the Obama administration announces its budget, for details on which programs will be affected.

“I’m not in a position to say right now,” he said.

Nabors also shot down the idea that the proposal was a political calculation aimed at making Obama appear as a centrist, with liberals decrying the move for going too far and conservatives arguing it doesn’t go far enough.

“This isn’t a plan of triangulation,” he insisted. “This is a plan of necessity.”

Obama’s “Freeze”

President Obama is set to announce a three-year “freeze” in non-security discretionary spending during his State of the Union as part of his efforts to convince independents that he cares about reducing the deficit. I say “freeze” in quotes, because some programs will go up, while some will go down — thus providing the Obama administration wiggle room to say that Obama isn’t reversing his position on an across the board freeze of the kind that he criticized John McCain for during the campaign. “An across-the-board spending freeze is a hatchet and we do need a scalpel because there are some programs that don’t work at all,” he said (video here).

My position is, yes, this is mainly a symbolic gesture — after all, the White House claims it would save $250 billion — less than a third of the cost of the economic stimulus bill alone. It’s only a temporary, three-year freeze that follows years of unprecedented spending and it comes as he’s pitching a jobs bill, which is essentially a second stimulus. In fact, spending in 2011 to 2013 will total $11.4 trillion, according to the mid-session review of Obama’s Office of Management and Budget.” But with that said, I think this is a good issue for conservatives — and also Republicans — to get behind rather than just reflexively oppose. Point out why it’s mainly cosmetic and doesn’t go far enough, say “I see you, and I raise you,” but still jump on any chance to reduce the growth in federal spending, however marginal.