Obama attempts to set terms for 2016 with State of the Union
President Obama’s State of the Union address was a tale of two speeches — and two campaigns. It was part 2012 and part 2008, both partisan and aspirational. It was an expression of a politician determined to make a fight of it with Republicans during his last two years in office and to set the terms of 2016.
For most of the 2014 campaign, Obama was forced to the sidelines, spurned by members of his own party who ran away from him as best they could. As they went down to defeat, he chafed from afar, his voice muffled. In the aftermath, he said neither he nor the Democrats had made an effective argument on their own behalf.
Since those election defeats, he has been freed of all that, and on Tuesday night, he showed that he runs most confidently when he runs alone. However much his party may have suffered, however significant the gains by the opposition party, he was there to remind Republicans that, if they have won a pair of midterm elections, he has twice won the White House. He even poked them with an ad libbed line that said exactly that when they applauded the fact that he has no more campaigns to run.
The first thing he wanted to do with a national audience Tuesday night was to reframe the arguments he used to win the 2012 election under difficult conditions: a fight for the middle class.
Faced at the time with questions about his own economic stewardship, he turned that campaign into a question for the middle-class voters: Who do you trust with your futures, me or Mitt Romney? And in that campaign, he set out to disqualify Romney with a relentless series of attacks that represented a departure from the tenor of his first campaign. For enough voters, the answer to the question of who do you trust was Obama.
The theme of middle-class economics isn’t new to the president. He has talked about it for years, even if he hasn’t been able to deliver on the goals of raising wages and relieving working families of the anxieties they feel in an economy that has treated the wealthy far better than them.
Much of what he offered Tuesday will be vehemently opposed by the Republicans. That was of little concern to a president focused on the future as much as the present. His speech was intended to seize the upper hand, to the extent he can, against a congressional opposition that understandably looks at the results of the November election and believes it has been given a chance to govern from Capitol Hill, with an agenda far different than the president’s.
Unlike many past State of the Union speeches, Obama did not offer a laundry list of initiatives. This was not a speech filled with paragraphs that resulted from agency-by-agency bidding for a sliver of recognition as if part of the annual budgetary review. It was an expression of values — Obama’s Democratic values.
Obama and the Democrats struggled through the midterm elections, constrained in their ability to talk about economic progress in the face of polling and other data that showed most Americans weren’t feeling it. The Democrats didn’t know whether to be upbeat or downbeat, and with the president’s approval ratings hovering in the low-to-mid 40s, they could feel the weight on their backs.
Since the election, however, better economic news has helped to produce rising approval ratings for the president. He decided to leverage that new reality — whether temporary or more long lasting — by embracing economic improvements as vindication of his policies. On Tuesday, he celebrated the recovery. “It has been, and still is, a hard time for many,” he said. “But tonight we turn the page.”
But turning the page meant only that he sought to use the foundation of an improving economy to make an even more robust case for the kinds of economic policies he long has advocated, whether pushing for a higher minimum wage or paid sick leave or defending the Affordable Care Act and financial regulatory reform against Republican efforts to roll them back.
He threatened vetoes as a way of reminding Republicans that even an embattled president has power to wield. He rebuked Republican opponents of a higher minimum wage, saying, “If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”
Then, toward the end, came an entirely different tone. Having replayed the debates of 2012, he returned to the aspirational message of unity, of turning the page on a decade of polarized and poisonous politics, that captured the imaginations of so many Americans when he first ran for the White House in 2008.
He recalled the speech that first brought him national attention, his uplifting keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, when he said there was not a liberal America and a conservative America but a United States of America.
On Tuesday, he acknowledged that critics have noted the irony that, after six years of his presidency, the country appears more divided than ever, whether through his own failures of leadership (which he said were many) or because his vision was “misguided, naive.” Obama said the cynics and the critics were wrong, that there was still hope for something different.
Calling on those in the House chamber to rise to a “better politics” of debate without demonization, he said, “I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long.”
Obama may aspire to break the fever of gridlock in Washington. Who wouldn’t? He may still believe he is capable of reasoned debate with Republicans that can produce a modicum of bipartisanship on at least a few issues. This has always been part of his political DNA.
But by now Obama is anything but naive. He knows the opportunities for cooperation with Republicans are minimal, given the wide differences they have on most issues. He knows that calls for unity are overwhelmed by veto threats and lines drawn over substantive issues. Even his language about a better politics included issues that still divide.
Having twice won election victories, Obama is confident that the agenda he outlined — again — is one that can put the Democrats in a stronger position entering the 2016 campaign, even if there is minimal progress between now and then. If his presidential legacy rests in part on the Democrats’ ability to retain the White House in 2016, Tuesday’s speech was the opening argument.