Chastened is not an adjective normally associated with Barack Obama. But that was the underlying theme of his State of the Union address: that a rocky first year in office had left Americans unsure about whether he can produce the soaring change he once promised.

“I know there are many Americans who aren’t sure if they still believe we can change — or that I can deliver it,” the president said Wednesday night. This was a remarkable admission. Obama said he had never believed that “the mere fact of my election would usher in peace and harmony and some post-partisan era.” But the forces of political gravity have exerted more downward force than the president and his team could have imagined a year ago.

Obama’s acknowledgment of public anxieties was not exactly matched by an admission of his role in helping create them. He spoke in the “mistakes were made” passive voice. The administration suffered “some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved,” Obama said — without detailing which, exactly.

On health care, he accepted “my share of the blame” — but only for “not explaining it more clearly to the American people.” I’m supportive of health reform and the president’s decision to try it despite the head winds of a bad economy. No president lacks for explanatory opportunities; this president is a gifted explainer who has seized every such moment. To assess the problem as simply one of salesmanship underestimates the degree and nature of public concern. Likewise, Obama’s distancing dismissal of “all the lobbying and horse-trading” ignores the White House’s central role at the corral. After you’ve been in the backroom with PhRMA, it rings more than a little false to express outrage about what was going on in there.

So can a chastened Obama regain the lost sense of excitement and opportunity? Eventually, perhaps, but never entirely. The second time is never as thrilling.

On a rhetorical and symbolic level, his exhortations to “overcome the numbing weight of our politics” felt stale. Voters entranced by this vision a year ago could be forgiven if they respond with more skepticism now, when partisanship and gridlock seem more entrenched than ever.

As a matter of substance, the admonition to “take another look” is hardly a clear rallying cry on health care, particularly coupled with the announcement that “jobs must be our No. 1 focus in 2010.” A president’s ability to magically create jobs is limited; tax credits for small businesses that create jobs and vows to “slash the tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas” seem designed more with politics in mind than economics. On the debt, a spending freeze is a fine signal but small bore compared to the magnitude of the problem. Obama cannot allow his planned deficit-reduction commission to become another mechanism for the can-kicking he once promised to end.

This could be Obama’s low point. The economy is slowly recovering. The loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat was a political earthquake, but Democrats have already factored in the likelihood of a bleak November and dramatically narrowed majorities. By next year’s State of the Union, the president, I predict, will be neither as beleaguered as he now appears nor as invincible as he seemed a year ago.

Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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