The pomp and circumstance of the State of the Union address has always afforded President Barack Obama, and other skillful presidential orators before him, the opportunity to weave a bit of magic. With the aim of drawing in less politically engaged voters into the folds of the Democratic party ahead of the 2016 presidential elections, the president’s annual address was a description of a brave new world.
On Tuesday, January 16th, Obama’s was eager to paint 2014 as a “breakthrough” year for the United States:
Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world. It has been, and still is, a hard time for many. But tonight, we turn the page. Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. … Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. … The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.
His use of the phrase “the shadow of the crisis has passed” to describe the state of the union Tuesday begs further examination. He claimed the crisis had passed with the same finality and ease of night transitioning to day. And while the passage of crisis and the turning over of a new leaf were undoubtedly the threads holding together his narrative, the president’s goal seemed to be communicating a sense of victory. In the early minutes of the address, Obama listed the major domestic accomplishments made by his administration — like ensuring that approximately “10 million uninsured Americans finally gained the security of health coverage,” and creating new tools to stop “taxpayer-funded bailouts” — in what seemed to be an effort to prove that he had already won more battles with Republicans than the party would like to admit.
So what victories has Obama won? The Affordable Care Act has successfully lowered the rate of uninsured Americans dramatically. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been wound down, although the United States will be unable to completely extricate itself from the Middle East for many years to come thanks to the ongoing instability in the region. The U.S. economy is creating jobs at pace unseen since way before the Great Recession. Obama particularly underscored America’s economic progress. The economic recovery is both perhaps the most easily measured of Obama’s successes, and the essential background for the agenda of his final two years in office. Job creation may be strengthening and wages may have experienced a slight uptick this past year, but income inequality remains the painful caveat to the economic inequality, meaning reversing the widening gap between wealthy Americans and middle- and lower-income households will drive White House policy-making in 2105 and 2016.
If only one word could be used to describe Obama’s demeanor during the State of the Union, it would be liberated. He did not act as if his party’s power had been drastically decreased thanks the results of the midterm elections, although the Democrats lost nine seats in Congress, giving the Republicans a slight majority. With congressional midterms past, the president and his agenda are less constrained by congressional Democrats worried about retaining their seats.
Once the midterm elections pass, and a president enters the final two years of his term, he is typically referred to as a lame duck, primarily because his waning time in office gives him less political influence. Obama is not only a lame duck but he also faces the added challenge of a Republican-dominated Congress; the midterm elections gave the GOP a modest, though not veto-proof, majority in the Senate and the largest presence in the House in more than 80 years. Outwardly, Obama appears unconcerned with his time limitations or his political limitations in Congress. He calls the final two years of his presidency the “fourth quarter,” because “interesting things happen in the fourth quarter,” as he said last month. Yet to say he feels no urgency would be inaccurate. What makes the fourth quarter of sporting event, and the final “lame duck” years of a presidency, interesting is that sense of urgency.
A sense urgency has manifested itself in past state of the union addresses. In 2011, Obama’s address was all about compromise; he offered to Republicans a five-year freeze in domestic discretionary spending in hopes of convincing the politically divided Congress to advance his reform agenda. The next year, coming off the debt ceiling fight that nearly pushed the federal government into default, Obama once again offered concessions but with less hope of bipartisanship. “I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum,” he said. “I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.” The Obama of 2013 was frustrated with the Republican-dominated House and increasingly-powerful GOP Senate minority, neither of which showed any interest in his priorities. He had asked Congress to consider a minimum wage increase and pass a modest gun control bill, which was proposed in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting. His pleas went unheard; compromise became a distant memory; and Obama announced in 2014 that he would advance his agenda by executive action.
However, this year, Obama’s words were directed to the American people. He made no please to Congress, nor did he pledge to act without Congress as he did last year. He chose the populist appeal. He asked a series of rhetorical questions about economic equality, protecting the environment, costly military conflicts, and political partisanship. “Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another?” he queried. “Or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?” Obama spoke of the need for “better politics,” in which leaders “talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than ‘gotcha’ moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives.” His concept of a better political system spends “less time drowning in dark money.” His concept of better politics is “how we move this country forward.” When Obama said it was time to turn the page, he meant that the United States was leaving behind the devastation of the financial crisis. Obama’s metaphor could also be applied to his relationship with Congress, and his state of the union address suggested Washington should close the chapter on the most dysfunctional period of U.S. legislative history.
However, bipartisanship is wishful thinking. Republicans have already rejected the proposals central to the president’s domestic agenda, especially the tax reform he proposed. Obama may feel liberated from the political concerns of another election, but the reality is he needs Republican support to implement his “middle class economics.” Obama did not ask for their support, and it is easy to see that the president’s self-congratulation and bluster did not sit will with his political opponents.
But Obama’s State of the Union was as much about taking credit as proving the credibility of Democrats to voters. In past years, and for much of 2014 as well, the president has been reluctant to tout economic growth and job creation, largely because the recovery was so tenuous. During an April speech on minimum wage, he made little mention of the country’s economic gains, save for noting: “those at the top are doing better than ever.” While both the economy and job creation has significantly strengthened in the later half of 2014, that assessment remains true. Yet, ahead of the congressional midterms, he campaigned on the idea that “by almost every measure, we are better off now than we were when I took office.” The difference is, of course, politics. By describing how far the economic recovery has progressed since the end of the recession as he did during the state of the union, Obama can build the public’s confidence in his domestic agenda. And that will help Democrats in 2016, and perhaps even put pressure on Republicans.
It was more politically expedient to build on the past. He does not need to convince the American public that “yes we can,” but show “yes we did.” He had to offer proof that his middle class economics works. “At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious, that we would crush jobs and explode deficits,” the president said Tuesday. “Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health-care inflation at its lowest rate in fifty years.” Last year — his self-titled “year of action” — may seem to have been long on political dysfunction and short on help to the middle class. But the Obama that spoke Tuesday night appeared satisfied with his accomplishments on health care and the environment.
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