President Barack Obama decided his State of the Union address would not be the place to carry on the long-running ideological battle that divides him and fellow Democrats from their Republican opponents. But the many proposals he described in his lengthy speech proceed from the view that action by the federal government is necessary on multiple fronts.
His was a call to action, and implicit in his call was his understanding that Republicans have successfully blocked action during his first five years. Sometimes, Obama was explicit with that message as when he gently mocked congressional Republicans about their fruitless 40 attempts to undo the Affordable Care Act. They needn’t try again. “The first 40 were enough,” he said.
In Obama’s telling, the Affordable Care Act has already begun to succeed. “Already, because of the Affordable Care Act,” he said, “more than 3 million Americans under age 26 have gained coverage under their parents’ plans. More than 9 million Americans have signed up for private health insurance or Medicaid coverage.”
That was just one part of the litany of success contained in Obama’s speech. He launched his speech by ticking off a series of gains:
n The lowest unemployment rate in five years.
n A manufacturing sector that is adding jobs.
n More oil produced domestically than imported from abroad.
n Deficits reduced by half.
n Increased investment in the United States from abroad.
He said America had made these gains by the hard work of the American people, who have not been paralyzed in the way that the federal government has been. Indeed, he used his speech to distinguish between the people and the government. It is the people who have started new companies and renewed old ones, who have worked hard to raise families while growing the crops, manufacturing the products and selling the goods that make our economy hum. The government, meanwhile, has been paralyzed by ideological gridlock.
Obama’s call to action was meant to separate him in people’s minds from the swamp of inaction in Washington. As all the workers across the country who have refused to give up, Obama, too, has refused to give up. Thus, he will take action when he can, independent of Congress, as with his decision to raise the minimum wage on new federal contracts and his plan to tighten greenhouse-gas emission standards for power plants.
Obama knows the American people took a dim view of the political combat that resulted in a government shutdown and other manufactured crises last year. So, instead of promising more futile head butting, he took the posture of the happy warrior, ready to do what he could for the American people.
His proposals were spread across the policy landscape, involving manufacturing, energy, education, early education, trade, immigration, research, job training, pay equity and health care. By refusing to be confrontational with Congress, he sought to create the kind of atmosphere that would foster cooperation. He even mentioned favorably two Republican members of Congress, House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Marco Rubio.
His speech will not change the minds of members of Congress and is likely to have limited effect on the public directly. But it could change the way the media describe his presidency and his relations with Congress. The story about last year was about how Congress had frustrated Obama’s ambitious agenda, leaving him weakened and less popular. The story proceeding from this speech was how Obama is ready to act for the American people, who now have a good idea of who is getting in his way. If Obama succeeds in shaping the story his way, congressional obstructionism will come across to voters as the great stumbling block standing in the way of the nation’s bright future. And that’s not a bad way for the Democrats to approach the November elections.
But even if he did not present his proposals within a fully fleshed out philosophical framework, his proposals represent an activist liberal agenda designed to get the economy moving and to put in place the “ladders of opportunity” needed for people to climb out of poverty.
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