State of the Union: Jobs No. 1 Priority

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President Barack Obama, it seems, is the eternal optimist.

Despite a year in which Republicans undercut his policies at every turn, the president renewed his call to bipartisanship very early on in his first State of the Union address Wednesday night, calling on lawmakers “to overcome the numbing weight of our politics.”

He later said, “I am not naïve… [But] I will not give up on changing the tone of our politics.”

To Democrats he admonished that they use their majority in Congress to solve problems, “not run for the hills.” And he upbraided the GOP for its troublemaking, saying, “Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.”

Capitol Hill Republicans met this all very stoically, not booing but seldom clapping throughout the 70-minute speech, even when President Obama boasted about cutting taxes of 95 percent of working families, of small businesses, first-time homebuyers and college students. Democrats sprang to their feet and cheered. Republicans remain unmoved and President Obama looked at them as if surprised by their silence and said, “I thought I’d get some applause on that one.”

The president ploughed on, however, saying the cooperation of both parties is necessary to solve the nation’s myriad problems, with job creation at the top of the list.

“Jobs must be our No. 1 focus in 2010, and that is why I am calling for a new jobs bill tonight,” president Obama said, speaking before the joint meeting on Congress.

To boost employment, he suggested increasing small businesses’ access to credit by channeling money recouped from Wall Street banks to community banks. He also proposed a new tax credit for small businesses that hire new workers or raise wages and eliminating capital gains taxes on small business investment among other incentives.

The president’s focus on jobs was not surprising and was a response to festering resentment about the Wall Street bailout and mounting disapproval of job stagnation, which have registered in Obama’s approval ratings.

The president addressed the disenchantment head on.

“[People] don’t understand why it seems like bad behavior on Wall Street is rewarded but hard work on Main Street isn’t,” he said. “If there’s one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans, it’s that we all hated the bank bailout….It was about as popular as a root canal.”

Even as he acknowledged populist anger, however, Obama remained unapologetic and even defiant about the steps his administration took to address the crisis.

“I campaigned on the promise of change – change we can believe in, the slogan went. And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren’t sure if they still believe we can change – or at least, that I can deliver it,” he said. “But remember this – I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone.”

The president reiterated his commitment to the green economy and to climate conservation; to a “world-class” education and to immigration reform; to civil rights enforcement and to ending the Iraq War this year; to financial reform and enforced free trade agreements. He addressed the deficit, announcing a three-year discretionary spending freeze to begin in 2011 and threatening vetoes to enforce that discipline. And, he tackled the elephant in the room—health care reform.

“Now let’s be clear – I did not choose to tackle this issue to get some legislative victory under my belt.  And by now it should be fairly obvious that I didn’t take on health care because it was good politics,” Obama said, prompting chuckles throughout the chamber.

The president accepted some blame for the growing skepticism among the American people, saying he had failed to explain the labyrinthine issue. But he urged lawmakers—and citizens—to give the legislation another chance because the concerns of the nation’s health care system would not go away.

“Do not walk away from reform,” he urged Congress. “Not now.  Not when we are so close.”

The president also vowed that he would not walk away from tackling other areas of long-needed reform despite contentions that he is taking on too much and despite what he called some “deserved” political setbacks during his first year of office.

In response to dissent he could “respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths…to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what’s best for the next generation,” Obama said. But he will press on the president said, vowing, “I don’t quit.”