The big question now is what happens next. As if to complete yet another State of the Union tradition, Obama spent a great deal of time on the laundry list of programs he was proposing. He increased the number of troops, hinted at the need for more bailout money, promised universal education through college and universal health care. At one point, he even promised to cure cancer.
This causes at least two problems. It sounds too good to be true (and it is), and the groaning basket of policy dreams creates dissonance with all of Obama's recent talk about fiscal stability. The polls show Americans list the deficit as their top concern. This won't settle their fears.
There's also the practical problem with Obama's promises. While he's expanding commitments, he's making big promises for fiscal responsibility and rigor.
"Everyone in this chamber—Democrats and Republicans—will have to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars. And that includes me," he said. That might just sound like rhetoric, but Obama keeps doubling down. He has committed to going line-by-line in his budget looking for waste and to holding Congress accountable as well. "I want to pass a budget next year that ensures that each dollar we spend reflects only our most important national priorities." When he talks about saving "each dollar," he's not kidding. At his fiscal responsibility summit Monday, Obama boasted about the $1 million that could be saved by updating the Agriculture Department's Web site.
That's great. But it also sets a high bar for Congress. Will it be able to pass the "each dollar" test? It didn't when it came to negotiating the stimulus package. It's not likely to in the coming $410 billion spending package being debated this week, a package that represents the second biggest annual increase since 1978 for discretionary spending. Obama is making an enormous case about the central role of government, based, in part, on the idea that his approach will be honest, accountable, and gimmick free. If his promises turn out to be phony, then he may lose the political capital necessary to sustain support for the long-term projects he launched tonight.
The speech was not an official State of the Union address, yet Obama followed the usual traditions of such speeches, down to his choice of an adjective—it's almost always strong—to describe the state of the union. (Even George Washington, in his first address, felt compelled to offer the sentiment: "I embrace with great satisfaction the opportunity, which now presents itself, of congratulating you on the present favorable prospects of our public affairs.") Given the economic conditions in the country right now, it would have been hard for President Obama to find a way to say those words. Nevertheless, he did come close. "Tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before."
It's a big boast. It takes a confident orator to make it. It will take an even more confident president to pull it off.