Obama gets down to business on the economy first

President sounds defiant note on policy agenda in first State of the Union address
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The Independent US

One day after a State of the Union address that included a few admissions of error but gave little quarter to political pessimism or the lure of retrenchment, President Barack Obama hit the road eager to sell an agenda that was reordered perhaps but barely less ambitious.

"We don't quit; I don't quit," he proclaimed in a marathon-length speech on Wednesday night that veered between chiding – of Republicans, of his own party and even of himself – and the delivering of reassurance to a country weary of economic hardship and disappointed with government. Job creation was now his first priority, he said. Healthcare reform got a fresh push too but only when half the speech was done.

To help prove his seriousness about refocusing on the economy and employment, Mr Obama used his visit to Tampa, Florida, yesterday to unveil $8bn in grants to kick-start the building of a new high-speed rail network in the United States. The first projects to benefit are in Florida, Illinois and California.

First to pierce his balloon was his old foe John McCain, who noted the call in the speech for the Senate to pass a bill, already approved in the House, to boost job creation. He called it too expensive and in contradiction with other pledges from the President to freeze spending and tame the budget deficit.

On healthcare reform, which some have declared dead since the loss of the Kennedy seat in Massachusetts last week, Mr Obama slipped briefly into humour. "By now, it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on healthcare because it was good politics," he said to general laughter.

With the risk that giving up on healthcare reform entirely could be a death knell for Democrats at elections in November, Mr Obama urged Congress to find a way forward. "By the time I'm finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance. Millions will lose it this year," he said. "I will not walk away from these Americans. And neither should the people in this chamber."

If the length of the address was striking – at more than 68 minutes it was the sixth longest ever – so was the political acrobatics it displayed. Where some saw unexpected political confidence in his willingness to reach out to both parties of Congress and tell them off when he saw fit (even the Supreme Court suffered a presidential swipe) others saw a man flailing for too many straws at once and grasping none.

Some on the Democratic side were exasperated by his eagerness to still engage with Republicans even after they have shown no reciprocation for 12 months. "The fact is, we have an opposition determined to bring him down," House Democrat Jim McDermott complained. "I don't know when he's going to get the message... They're not going to help him at all." But in Tampa, Mr Obama went further in reaching across the aisle. "I want the Republicans off the sidelines," he said. "I want them with us."

The night before, Mr Obama helped his party where he could, by reminding it of what it has actually achieved during his first year in office, including an array of tax cuts which, he said, have helped "95 per cent of working families". And he reminded jittery Democrats that it was the stimulus bill last spring that pulled America back from a recession that was almost a depression.

But they needed to climb from their own funk, made worse by the loss of the 60th filibuster-proof seat in the Senate, he insisted. "I would remind you," he told his own party, "that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills."

Eyeing the other side of the chamber, he said: "If the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 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."

Among all the flourishes and admonitions from Mr Obama, it was a moment of silence that was most telling. Boasting of the tax cuts he had enacted, he looked to the Republicans and said almost wistfully, "I thought I'd get some applause on that". He did not.

Barack's speech in numbers

676 Number of words Barack Obama spoke before the first round of applause

86 Number of times the president was interrupted by applause in total

31m Viewers who tuned in on TV

48 Percentage of voters who had a very positive reaction, compared to 21 per cent who had a negative response. Last year 68 per cent were strongly supportive

68 minutes Length of the speech, the longest since Bill Clinton in 2000