President Barack Obama said a lot of what the nation wanted to hear in his first State of the Union address. But words are easy. Actions aren't. And it's what gets done that matters.
Ordinary Americans have been neglected by their representatives in Washington, who fiddled too long over health care while jobs and homes and nest eggs burned. Obama needed to hear that message, and it appears he did. The public is desperate for a clear view to better times and for leadership to see us through.
Obama has adjusted his agenda to meet the needs of a nation rocked by joblessness and economic insecurity and turned off by months of ugly partisan wrangling. But dealing with the nation's host of problems won't be easy. Particularly since Republican Scott Brown's upset win in Massachusetts deprived Democrats of their filibuster-proof Senate majority, put health care reform on life-support and - with Republicans implacably saying no to everything - killed any momentum Obama's domestic agenda may have had.
Obama steered the nation away from economic Armageddon last year. The economy is growing again, at an annual rate of 5.7 percent at the end of 2009, its strongest performance since 2003. And the rate of job loss has slowed. Still, with one in 10 workers unemployed and wages stagnant for those who do have jobs, the public is hurting and angry.
So Obama spent Wednesday night repackaging his agenda. He didn't drop any items from the list - in fact, it got longer. But he did shuffle his priorities. He put creating jobs at the top, where it belongs, followed closely by regulating Wall Street and promoting green energy. Health care reform slipped somewhere south of improving schools and helping families pay for child care, college and retirement.
He re-branded the lot too, combining his initiatives under the rubric of bringing more security to the middle class. That's important. With joblessness and sliding home values eroding Americans' quality of life, Obama had to hear the pain and answer it.
The other message, sent and received, is that the public has soured on the self-serving partisanship and loathsome deal-making that is standard operating procedure in Washington. Obama called it "a deficit of trust."
A surfeit of disgust would be just as apt. Disgust with insider deals like the one to exempt union workers from the tax on expensive "Cadillac" health care plans. Or the one that would have had all of us paying Nebraska's Medicaid bills, so Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) would vote for health care reform.
Obama said he gets it. Congress should, too. As Obama mentioned in his speech, this is no time for Democrats to run for cover, or for Republicans to irresponsibly just say no. Unless Congress changes how it's doing business, solving the nation's big problems will be impossible, instead of just dauntingly difficult.
Creating jobs, for instance, which is job one. What government can do is limited, especially given big deficits. But officials must cooperate to deliver what little Washington can.
It can, and should, provide targeted tax cuts for businesses that hire new workers or raise wages, a proposal Obama pushed Friday in Baltimore, where he also met with House Republicans. Eliminating the capital gains tax on small business investment and providing money to free up credit for small businesses are also sound ideas.
So is expanding incentives to weatherize homes. That, and anything else that puts money directly into the hands of people who will quickly spend it - like extending unemployment benefits or helping the jobless pay for health insurance via COBRA - will help stimulate demand, which will prompt businesses to hire.
Washington should also invest more in infrastructure. An $8-billion plan to build high-speed rail announced Thursday - and funded via the stimulus bill - is the kind of initiative that will create jobs and also deliver lasting value for the nation. The announcement included rapid rail links between New York City and Montreal, and from New York City through Albany to Rochester and Buffalo.
Pressure to restrain spending and deficits has pinched the money available to create jobs. The House passed a $154-billion jobs bill last month, a figure the Senate should at least match. Still, that's not much, given the need. It will take time to replace the 7 million jobs lost to the recession.
But the clock is ticking for Obama, and even louder for members of Congress, most of whom are up for re-election in November. They have to find the will and a way to work together. Otherwise they'll continue to be one of the reasons for the uneasy state of the union. hN