Minutes into his State of the Union address, President Obama extolled one of his main themes: The necessity for American workers to compete. “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world,” the president said.
That message, focused on the economy, struck Chris Carney, a former Democratic congressmen from northeast Pennsylvania swept out of office amid huge GOP gains last year, as the right one delivered too late. “I wish he had said that two years ago,” said the former lawmaker, a “Blue Dog” Democrat who nonetheless voted for his party’s health care bill.
Instead of hearing the president deliver it in person as he sat in Congress, Carney heard the remarks on TV sitting next to a National Journal reporter. His absence from the Capitol on Tuesday was a poignant reminder of what Democrats lost during Obama’s first two years in office—a net of 63 members in the House and six in the Senate—just as he officially marked the next phase of his presidency. If the president’s address is any indication, it’s one that will focus on far more centrist policies that address the economy directly—not health care or climate change.
Carney is adamant that he continues to support Obama and, despite suffering a 10-point defeat on Election Day, says he is proud of the “historic” work he helped the Democratic Congress accomplish during the president’s first two years. But as he analyzed the speech after its completion, Carney couldn’t help but suggest that Obama’s 2011 speech would have been better delivered in 2009.
“All the things he talked about with infrastructure and education—we could have gotten a two-year head start on them,” he said. “That’s what I believe we could have tackled.”
Carney was always going to be among the most vulnerable Democratic House members if the president’s popularity sank. His district, which includes areas north of Scranton and a wide swath of central Pennsylvania, is full of older, rural, and white voters who turned against Democrats in droves last year. Republicans command a big enough registration edge there that any victorious Democrat must receive a significant share of the GOP vote.
Carney defeated incumbent Don Sherwood in 2006 only because of the party’s sweeping success nationally that year amid allegations that Sherwood had attempted to strangle his girlfriend.
The Democratic lawmaker said he didn’t think Obama’s speech Tuesday was much different than the ones he normally delivers. But he added that he thought the State of the Union was more pointed than usual and defended the health care bill more effectively than the president had before.
Carney says the administration didn’t develop the right message on many of its major proposals, particularly health care, whose popular individual components were lost in cries of a government takeover that would eliminate jobs.
But unlike some Democrats, the former congressman said some of the president’s policies, even if they were the right thing to do, could have been done in a better “sequence.” Instead of pushing health care reform months after taking office, as he put it, it would have been better for Obama to "knock a point-and-a half off unemployment" before tackling big issue like health care. The policies outlined Tuesday night, he said, would have been a good alternative.
“Perhaps it would have put Republicans more on notice that you can’t be the party of ‘no,’ ” said Carney. “What the president put forth here is a very centrist, reasonable solution to the problems facing the country.”