Sabatos Crystal Ball


Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics January 29th, 2010


The famous 2008 campaign poster of Barack Obama—a saintly visage of the candidate above one word, “Hope”—still hangs in many a Democratic home. But a year into his presidency, there is a good deal less hope than before.

As Mr. Obama gave his first State of the Union address, it seemed at times more like a discussion of the state of his union with the American people. Millions watched to see if his second year offered more promise of successful action on the issue that trumps all others—the economy and high unemployment. Even most senior Democrats agree that their leader has badly spent his first year’s capital on health care reform, a matter of secondary importance to the voters, rather than economic revival.

On Wednesday evening, the president talked jobs, all right, but he was all over the map. The speech included a laundry list of wishes and pledges, but the unspoken fear that Mr. Obama had too little mandate left to fulfill them hung heavy in the chamber.

The president briefly expressed humility for unnamed mistakes made, but insisted that he would “stay the course” and continue to tackle the same agenda, including health care. He called for a renewal of long-lost bipartisanship, and then launched several attacks on the Republicans in the audience. He called for a spending freeze in light of the mountainous U.S. national debt, yet proposed various costly initiatives and budget increases.

Polishing his populist credentials, Mr. Obama went after the banks and Wall Street, widely despised as the culprits in the current economic meltdown. At the same time, he warmly greeted the most unpopular member of his Cabinet, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, whom many members of both parties would like to see resign. A frustrated Obama even lashed out at the Supreme Court, sitting directly in front of him, for a recent campaign financing decision—a stunning breach of the protocol that usually governs such occasions of state.

Obama’s mixed messages underline his need to please constituencies that are at odds—the moderates and liberals at war within the Democratic party, a handful of moderate Republicans he needs to achieve legislative success, and the large group of independents who have recently voted against his candidates in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts—and who threaten to deliver a drubbing to Democrats in the November midterm elections for Congress and state governorships.

And that’s the nub of Mr. Obama’s problem. He cannot hold together a disparate coalition without a strong upturn in employment. The economy and other matters (such as terrorism) are in the saddle. Nicely turned phrases cannot change the reality on the streets of recession-devastated Ohio and Michigan.

The huge audience across America, tuning in from homes and hotels and beer halls, knew they would see a master rhetorician give a good speech. Yet they are waiting to see whether he can deliver the goods, not a speech. If Mr. Obama and his party are to prosper, there had better be more than hope to report in next year’s congressional address.

This piece first appeared in the Times of London.