Americans are used to watching their presidents age on the job. Youthful politicians, full of life in campaign season, seem to go gray overnight as the rigors of the Oval Office take their toll. But on Tuesday, for one night at least, the process seemed to reverse itself.
Barack Obama, beginning the seventh year of his presidency all but bounded to the podium in the well of the House of Representatives to deliver his State of the Union Address last night, looking like the fresh, inspiring candidate who, in 2008, galvanized much of the nation with his optimism and vision.
Having delivered all of his previous State of the Union Addresses with the U.S. economy in serious peril and some with U.S. soldiers involved in active shooting wars, Obama had previously been forced to temper his statements about the condition of the country. He felt no such constraints last night.
“The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong,” he declared, before rattling off a list of positive economic and social indicators: Strong job growth and lower unemployment, higher graduation rates and fewer Americans without health insurance, more domestic oil production and fewer U.S. troops in Middle Eastern war zones.
It wasn’t enough to point out that things had improved on his watch. The president made sure to note that Republican predictions of disaster had been wrong.
“At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits,” he said. “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.”
It was one of the speech’s many applause lines, and Democrats in the House chamber dutifully stood up to provide an ovation. Breaking from his prepared remarks, Obama looked down from the podium to his left, at the ranks of Republican lawmakers who remained steadfastly seated, and cracked, “This is good news, people.”
Then, he winked at them.
Later, responding to Republican cheers when he noted that he has no more campaigns to run, Obama jabbed at the GOP again, saying, “I know, because I won both of them.”
If it was political theater – and it was – it was political theater of the very first order. Someone recently awakened from a coma and asked to identify the politician in the room whose party had been thoroughly drubbed in the most recent election cycle would certainly not have pointed to the man behind the podium last night.
The president even retroactively named the policies that, he implied, were responsible for the economy’s improvement. Regulating the financial services industry more tightly, encouraging job growth, the provision of insurance through the Affordable Care Act, lower gas prices and higher graduation rates were all wrapped up in the mantle of what he referred to as “middle class economics” and given credit for the improving state of the economy.
Obama eventually swung to the political high road, urging cooperation in Washington on issues where both parties agree action is necessary.
“A better politics is one where we appeal to each other's basic decency instead of our basest fears,” he said. “A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we 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.”
For the evening, at least, Barack Obama was back on his old form. He made Republicans refusing to cheer for obvious economic successes that benefit all Americans looked churlish, and then offered them a rhetorical olive branch, daring them to compromise and promising openness to their ideas.
“If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, join me in the work at hand,” he said. “If you disagree with parts of it, I hope you'll at least work with me where you do agree. And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger.”
Again, it bears repeating, President Obama’s party lost the November election. Badly.
As much as he looked like the man with the upper hand on Tuesday night, that is not who Barack Obama is right now. The president’s party lost control of the Senate in the November elections and saw its minority in the House shrink further.
The president spent much of the two weeks leading up to Tuesday’s speech dropping “spoilers” about the policies he would propose, including two years of free community college for all qualifying students, guaranteed paid sick leave for workers, better access to broadband Internet service and more, all funded by a tax increase on the wealthy.
On Tuesday night, though, he was addressing a Congress whose leaders are dedicated to undoing much of what he has already done, not helping him to get more of his priorities enshrined in law.
It’s a Congressional majority that, judging by the State of the Union response delivered by freshman Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), lives in a different world than the president – one where health care is actually more scarce and more expensive, and jobs are still going away.
“We see our neighbors agonize over stagnant wages and lost jobs,” Ernst said just moments after Obama’s speech concluded. “We see the hurt caused by canceled healthcare plans and higher monthly insurance bills. We see too many moms and dads put their own dreams on hold while growing more fearful about the kind of future they’ll be able to leave to their children.”
While the president undoubtedly has a number of things he would like to get done in his final two years in office – he pressed tax reform, trade agreements, and infrastructure spending as areas of compromise – his State of the Union on Tuesday felt, in some respects, like the Democratic establishment’s first high-profile foray into the 2016 election campaign.
Little of what Obama proposed, either last night or in his two weeks of delivering “spoilers” is actually likely to become law, or to even get a vote in a Republican-controlled Congress. What it will do is help Democrats across the country unify behind a general message about what the party stands for while at the same time trying to define Republicans by the kind of policies they are against.
While many commentators insist that Obama is likely to spend much of his final two years in office looking for ways to burnish his legacy, they tend to forget that much of that same legacy, including his signature health care law and his executive actions on immigration, will be at risk if a Republican president takes the Oval Office in 2017.
It may be that the best thing Obama can do for the way history books remember his presidency is to do what he can to lay the groundwork for Democratic electoral success in 2016, even if he has to spend much of his final two years in office doing it.
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