Clinton didn’t get his education package, and George W. Bush’s 2005 plan to revamp Social Security went nowhere. Reagan did get a tax code rewrite the year after his 1985 speech, but it went forward with strong bipartisan support. And each of the lame ducks found that in the second year of the second term, their administrations were overwhelmed by events spinning out of their control – the Iran-contra scandal, impeachment, Iraq and so on.
So maybe Obama is being practical, going with the flow of the day. Maybe, the theory goes, if he gets a little of this and a little of that, and the jobless rate trickles below 7 percent, the Tuesday speech will be a new template for presidential rallying cries.
Tradition, though, says Americans want the presidents they just invested in with their votes to seize history, think big thoughts and inspire them.
They didn’t see that Tuesday night.
Obama’s problems aren’t just with Republicans. Democrats, who tend to be more liberal, have been critical of his willingness to compromise.
Obama joked about the relationship at last week’s House Democratic retreat. “There will be times when you guys are mad at me and I’ll occasionally read about it,” he said.
Democrats are well aware that in the sixth year of a presidency, the incumbent White House party often loses seats as voters tire of the old order.
Obama knows that the tension will persist unless he can grow his mandate, and that prospect remains uncertain. His latest Gallup Poll approval rating, taken Saturday through Monday, was 52 percent, roughly the same as his Election Day popular vote.
Job approval tends to track the economy. Last month, 157,000 jobs were added, but economists estimate for the jobless rate to drop significantly, job growth has to exceed at least 200,000 per month.
Even if he overcomes all the political obstacles, Obama is handcuffed by fiscal restraint. He can’t spend his way out of the economic mess. For the first time in his presidency, the budget deficit is expected to drop under $1 trillion this year, but it is still estimated to wind up a whopping $845 billion
That’s why Obama had to lace his speech with sober reminders: “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”