In his third State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proved once again what we have known since his introduction to the national political stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention: he is a brilliant orator. In the current political landscape, his poetic flourishes are unmatched.
Beyond that, this was his first major appeal for re-election and as such he delivered exactly the type of speech one does while campaigning: heavy on ideas, but light on specifics. President Obama produced a laundry list of problems, but only scratched the surface on solutions in a speech that married cautious and pragmatic policy suggestions coupled with bold patriotic optimism.
President Obama opened and closed with his major foreign policy achievements (the killing of Osama bin Laden and ending the Iraq War), weaving them into a narrative of American exceptionalism and a desire for the nation to cast aside differences to work together toward solutions of the biggest obstacles we are currently facing. The key line of the night came early: “The state of our union is getting stronger,” an acknowledgement that for millions of Americans the economic situation has not improved, but also a promise that recovery is not too far off.
Noticeably absent were lines aimed at bipartisan applause. There were the typical calls for both sides to come together and get things done, but the sort of generous overtures to ideas that have been championed by the GOP that Obama usually peppers into his speeches. Republicans joined the chorus of cheers for the death of Osama bin Laden and the call to develop multiple streams of American produced energy sources, including oil, natural gas, and renewable energy, but remained seated and quiet for most of the speech. President Obama took this time to draw the ideological lines that separate himself and his party from the opposition, placing Democrats on the side of working and middle classes, fairness, and closing the income gap. It’s the sort of populist messaging that will play well the blue collar White voters Obama will attempt to pull away from the Republican base in key swing states.
The president struck a “go it alone” tone in some parts that reflected the frustration that has been trying to work with an opposition Congress determined to see his administration fail. “I intend to fight obstruction with action,” Obama said forcefully, and made clear that while he would like cooperation, where the Executive Branch could act on its own, it would. This may win back some of his disaffected progressive base that has become disillusioned by President Obama’s perceived weakness. That’s if they aren’t dissuaded by some of his policy positions.
The POTUS didn’t back away from some of his more controversial stances including those on education and the expansion of offshore oil drilling, which have drawn the ire of progressive voters. Where he voiced support for the Dream Act, though not explicitly by name, he also did not shy away from his administration’s record number of deportations and a desire to put more “boots on the ground” to “secure” the border. This doublespeak often infuriates his progressive supporters, but it’s the type of centrism Obama is known for.
This was essentially a political speech, and throughout it was clear that the Obama re-election team believes former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will be their Republican opponent in the fall are preparing now the general election battle. The president pushed back against the chief criticisms Romney has lobbed against him on the campaign trail. On the issue of Iran, where Romney has repeatedly referred to the president’s approach as weak, Obama touted tough sanctions and a global coalition to ensure Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. “A peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible,” he said, “and far better,” but not before making it clear he would not take any options for dealing with a potential nuclear threat from Iran off the table.
Hitting on the economic attacks, Obama pointed out that during his administration there have been 3 million private sector jobs created, the auto industry has recovered, and the payroll tax cuts have put much needed cash directly into pockets of those who need it most.
He was sharpest when excoriating the fundamental unfairness of the current tax system, using the anecdote about billionaire Warren Buffet’s secretary (who was in attendance) paying a lower tax rate than the man who employs her to great effect.
In perhaps his most direct reference to the Romney campaign, President Obama charged, “When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference.” He wisely placed himself and his own income in the middle of this potential sound bite, drawing a contrast to the way Romney often appears out of touch with lower income Americans and unaware of his own wealth. While Romney is seeking to eliminate taxes on the type of income he earns through capital gains, Obama appears willing to sacrifice and raise his own taxes. It’s a ready-made “put country first” advertisement.
When he spoke the line “America is back” he could have easily replaced “America” with “Obama” as this was a speech reminiscent of the candidate that made history in 2008. When at his best, Obama appeals to disparate ideologies, allowing even his staunchest critics from either side of the political spectrum to find in him something admirable and worth supporting. This was Obama at his best.