The Swing States of Our Union Are Strong

Obama’s tepid election-year State of the Union attempts to lay a trap for Republicans.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address.
President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress.

Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images.

In the 2011 State of the Union, the president used the phrase “win the future” or a variant over and over and over again. A year later, the future is not won, but the slogan has lost. “Built to last” was the message for the 2012 State of the Union speech. Despite continued unsteadiness in the economy, the slogan-manufacturing sector is healthy. 

The new slogan could not rescue this State of the Union from the casket of boredom in which every State of the Union speech rests. It might as well be prescribed in the Constitution that the speech contain a vast list of proposals—all of them high priority—and that these proposals be couched in insincere bipartisanship. In a presidential election year, the speech changes ever so slightly, as the president must make an election pitch while trying not to look too obvious about it. In this sense, Barack Obama’s speech was very presidential.

The speech set the tone for the fall campaign. The president hopes to launch a debate about fairness: what role the government should play in regulating business and how much each citizen should contribute and expect. But it was not a speech you’d expect at a campaign rally with lot of broadsides and winning lines. That’s not possible in a State of the Union address, where the president is constrained by the office and the ceremony. Still, this was less forceful than last year’s speech and considerably less frontal than the joint-session speech Obama gave in September, in which he threatened to punish Republicans at the ballot box if they didn’t support his jobs plan.

The thematic core of the address was the same as it was last year: America is emerging from the recession, but to really thrive, income inequality must be reduced, commerce must be regulated, and the policies of the past that led to the mess must not be embraced anew. He said that “a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by.” His policies were aimed at creating a government “where everyone gets a fair shot.”

These are the themes for the fall campaign, but this speech wasn’t a great fusillade in that battle. It was an obligation and a bit of a trap since he can’t unload the full barrage in that setting, and he’d also be wise to wait for an opponent so he can tailor his attacks. In the end, it was a constipated version of his speech in Osawatomie, Kan. in December.

He made a pitch for smarter regulations. There will be “no bailouts, no handouts and no copouts,” he said, a bit of hot rhetoric to reverse the idea that he is in favor of mindless government intervention. It was a version of Bill Clinton’s 1996 pledge that “the era of big government is over.” 

Everything in the speech had political undertones. At the very start, he praised the troops returning from Iraq. He held up their selfless sacrifice and teamwork as a model to the nation. Political subtext: I promised to end the wars, and I have. When he mentioned cities that could be reborn, he chose “Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Raleigh,” all of which are in swing states. (The swing states of our union are strong.) Even the slogan “built to last” comes from the auto industry, highlighting his efforts to help save carmakers.

The president took swipes at Republicans that were familiar but not particularly tough. For example, he characterized their opposition as an effort to “return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.”

The central policy proposal for creating jobs is a package of tax incentives to keep companies from moving jobs overseas. He also called on more investment in green technology. One of his invited guests, Bryan Ritterby, was laid off but found a new job at a wind-turbine manufacturer. “I will not walk away from workers like Bryan.” The president will face a stiff set of attacks for his administration’s investment in the failed solar company Solyndra. Here he was trying to put a human face on the underlying policy. Don’t think of green-energy investment as picking winners or favoring political backers; think of Bryan instead.

The speech contained a dizzying list of requests on everything from immigration reform to an “all-of-the-above strategy” for energy that even the president recognized would never pass. It often felt exhausted. The key battleground for the coming inequality will be over tax policy. Obama called on millionaires to pay their share, reiterating his support for the “Buffett rule,” which he defined: If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes. Debbie Bosanek, one of Warren Buffett’s secretaries, sat with the first lady as one of the president’s props. Her effective tax rate is higher than her boss. (Given Mitt Romney’s recent disclosure that he paid an effective rate of 13.9 percent, it’s a surprise the White House didn’t invite his secretary.)

In a time of total political collapse, this State of the Union speech felt more detached from reality than usual. The president promised to “work with anyone in this chamber,” but in this election year the chances for agreement on anything serious are tiny. But the long list of proposals that look like they are earnestly offered serves an important political purpose. Before you bash the GOP for doing nothing, you have to make it look like you’ve made a good faith effort. That’s how he hopes to win in the future.