On Tuesday evening, the confident, populist Barack Obama of 2008 — if not 2004 — showed up for his sixth State of the Union address and reminded people why they voted for him in the first place.
Obama began his seventh year in office by turning the page on harder times, although many are still hurting, and providing an upbeat vision for America in his twilight years in office and beyond. He addressed the nation with a focus on inequality and opportunity, the role of government in helping people, and establishing his legislative agenda.
In the process, the president set the stage for a future showdown with a Republican-controlled Congress and fired the opening salvos in the 2016 elections.
“I have no more campaigns to run,” Obama said, interrupted by sarcastic Republican applause. “I know because I won both of them,” he jibed.
“We are fifteen years into this new century. 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,” the president said. “But tonight, we turn the page.”
The president painted a picture of economic success — with health insurance, low unemployment, high energy production and high graduation rates – but with clear choices for the future and the specter of inequality as a potential threat to America’s future. He insisted it is up to us to decide who we will be in the coming fifteen years and future decades: “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”
Further, the speech provided a ringing endorsement of the role of government in improving the lives of everyday working people. President Obama spoke of the virtues of “middle-class economics,” the notion that “this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” Reminding the audience of the importance of Social Security, worker protections, schools, technology and other bold government initiatives that have helped the nation adapt to new economic realities, the president proclaimed that this policy of expanding opportunity works “as long as politics don’t get in the way.”
Much of the language in this State of the Union address echoed the populism of Obama’s 2008 campaign for president, not to mention the bipartisan, bridge-building rhetoric of his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, in which he offered that America is more than a collection of red states and blue states.
However, the president also drew a line in the sand and placed the onus on a Republican Congress to take action. Obama reminded us that the U.S. is the only advanced nation without guaranteed paid sick leave or maternity leave for its workers, and American women are not guaranteed equal pay. “And to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: 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,” the president responded in an impromptu fashion.
Seizing on an economic populist message, the president repeated his plan for free universal community college, his G.I. Bill. And he proposed tax cuts on working families, more affordable childcare for working people, and higher taxes and closing tax loopholes for the super rich.
Addressing partisan gridlock and cynicism in politics, Obama also called for a “better politics” that debates rather than demonizes and appeals to people’s decency rather than their fears. “Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different,” Obama said.
And yet, the genius of President Obama’s address was to point to the need to continue his agenda, all but daring the GOP to attempt to reverse his progress. “We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, it will earn my veto,” Obama said.
Although he did not devote a great deal of time to it, the president did address the movement arising from the killing of black men by police and the need for change. “We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift,” he noted. Given the drop in the crime and incarceration rates for the first time in 40 years, President Obama added, Democrats and Republicans should take the opportunity to “reform America’s criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.”
In addition, the president cited the fiftieth anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and the need to make voting easier for everyone.
Aside from the bread-and-butter domestic issues, President Obama also talked about the need for a smarter American leadership that combines military and diplomacy and relies on coalition building with allies. Pointing to the shift in Cuba policy, after a decades-long failed embargo against the island nation, the president challenged Congress to end that embargo. In addition, he called on Congress to pass a resolution to authorize military force against ISIL — which may seem unrealistic to some observers, given the failure of a military strategy to combat acts of terrorism such as the Paris attacks – and pass legislation to address the threat of cyber-attacks and identity theft.
President Obama’s State of the Union address, his second longest, comes at a time when his approval is on the upswing at 50 percent, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Since the Democrats’ 2014 midterm losses, the White House has embarked on an aggressive strategy with bold policy initiatives. Although these popular — and populist — initiatives will help cement the president’s legacy in the final two years of his administration, they serve another purpose. Obama is drawing a line between himself and the GOP, but more importantly, he is clearly distinguishing the Democratic Party from the Republicans. A platform of economic justice and opportunity for working people will serve the Democrats well in 2016, when they are poised to retake the Senate and hope to win the White House for a third consecutive term.
After this speech, if the Republicans fail to follow President Obama’s lead – and they likely will not, if history is a guide — they will come off as the enemies of progress and the friends of the 1 percent. A lame duck president does not look like this.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove.