[dropcap]Y[/dropcap]ou can forget nearly every detail you heard in Barack Obama’s seventh State of the Union speech. The speech wasn’t actually about policy. Obama knows, just as you know, just as everyone knows, that his policy prescriptions are going nowhere.
As you may have heard, there’s a new Congress in town, not to mention the same old reality, only worse.
And so, the real takeaway from the speech was not new taxes on the very wealthy or free community college for all. It was about Obama’s boldly confident contention that the latest reality in Washington is not all that it’s cracked up to be.
I’d say the speech was meant to convey at least two things:
[pullquote]This was a six-years-in-victory-lap Obama saying that, if you believe income inequality is a real issue, then come up with a plan. This was the 5-percent-economic-growth Obama reminding everyone that Republicans said his plans would wreck the economy.[/pullquote]
One, Obama isn’t much impressed by the new Republican majorities, which will only ensure the same kind of gridlock we’ve seen the last four years.
Two, he took a gamble in going big on a series of executive orders, and he seems to be winning those bets. If you combine those bets with strong evidence that the economy is finally moving, he can say — as he did — that a page has been turned, that we’re not in crisis mode anymore, that it’s time to address concerns for middle-class voters, and, if we don’t — and, of course, we won’t — 2014 wasn’t the last election.
Yes, it was only last November that Democrats lost the Senate and saw the Republican majority grow in the House. Not only that, these majorities were constructed by linking every Democratic candidate (see: Udall, Mark) as closely as possible to Obama. This was Obama’s loss, a staggering loss, and yet.
This wasn’t your post-2010-shellacking Obama delivering this speech. This was your 5-percent-growth Obama. This was your 50-percent-approval-rating Obama. This was your challenge-to-Republicans Obama that, if you think income inequality is the real issue, come up with a plan. This was a six-years-in-victory-lap Obama in which he reminded everyone that Republicans had insisted his plans would wreck the economy.
The reality is that, as of now anyway, the 2016 election is likely to center on stagnating middle class pay and the minimum wage and immigration reform. Whether or not Democrats win on those issues is far from certain, but it is inarguable that those are the issues Democrats would love to run on.
The speech was a reminder that, against all expectations, Obama has won the post-election campaign — as Republican watched in some despair — and that if Obama isn’t getting much past Congress, then Congress isn’t getting much past him either. When Obama ended his speech with yet another plea for Washington comity, it was only after laying out a mostly liberal agenda meant to get Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats to their feet. Hillary Clinton tweeted her approval.
You had only to look at John Boehner’s face — a study in still life — to see that Obama wasn’t getting anywhere with him. Of course, the truth is that Obama wasn’t trying. If there are any compromises this year, they will likely be on the margins. Maybe Obama’s willingness to talk on trade will lead to talk on infrastructure. He made the obvious point that if Keystone is so great for jobs, why wouldn’t repairing bridges be even better? But there will be no major agreements, not with 2016 clearly in sight.
And what people will remember from the well-crafted speech is an ad-lib, which you’ve probably heard repeatedly by now. Obama was saying, “I’ve run my last campaign” and drew mock applause from some Republicans, to which Obama said, “I know, because I won both of them.” This was Obama in trash-talk mode, and, whatever else it did, it won’t bring anyone together.
It was a night for theatre, and, for Obama, it was a successful one-man show. What I mean is, when was the last State of the Union in which you saw a president wink? But the speech was also notable for what it didn’t emphasize. There was hardly any discussion of foreign policy. There was brief mention of Paris. There was brief mention of Syria and Iraq. Obama made a quick link of Ferguson to Selma, but he wasn’t about to make the night about race.
There’s no secret here. It’s hard to turn the page on crises when there are always new ones waiting. But for the first time in Obama’s presidency, he had a success story to tell on the economy, and that’s where he wanted the story to begin and end. He said it was time to get past the idea that America is failing and, more than that, to get past the idea that there is little Washington can do to make things better.
When Mitt Romney is gearing up a new campaign by talking about income inequality (which he described in his 2012 campaign as being about “envy” and “class warfare”), you know the political calculus has changed. Obama’s speech was an argument that after the disastrous midterms, this change — the old Obama standby — was finally moving in his direction.
The question today isn’t whether or not he’s right — we have two years to argue that — but how, in just two months, he even got to make the case.