The president’s State of the Union address was more than 6,000 words, but its message to voters could fit inside a single tweet: I am full of ideas that will directly affect your life, but these people in the audience are blocking them. The president brought a ton of proposals on Tuesday night: universal preschool, tax reform, immigration reform, a minimum wage increase, a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions, infrastructure investments, new housing incentives, manufacturing incentives, energy plans, a program for scoring college education by affordability, and paycheck equity. They all seemed to have ready-made hashtags: #manufacturinghub, #fixitfirst, and #collegescorecard. There was no moon shot or a plan for overhauling Social Security, but in the aggregate it was a lot, especially in the current environment where the Senate can’t pass a budget, House conservatives are ready to burn the ships, and Barack Obama and John Boehner openly question the other’s toughness.
How is the president going to get any of that done? Through creating outside pressure, his aides say. The State of the Union is a tough vehicle. The Constitution requires that the president report on the health of the nation, but the address is really an ensemble performance in which he and the audience act out the reasons it’s so hard for them to get anything done. To illustrate mindless partisanship, members of each party clapped or didn’t clap for different lines and phrases. Together they applauded only the most harmless notions like patriotism and the first lady, revealing how little they agree on. The president offered repeated rhetorical pitches that seemed utterly disconnected from reality. “We can get this done,” Obama said several times, as if all the old partisan arguments would melt away in the face of his new assurance. It’s not going to happen.
If only a president could break through the encrusted pageant and deliver one true thing. But apparently the Constitution has another rule: Don’t do anything risky or interesting with the form. President Obama gave a thoroughly conventional presentation on Tuesday night. It was another way in which the speech matched the moment. By not breaking through the format of the speech, the president reminds us how hard it is to break through the constraints that restrict governing. That puts into perspective the president’s larger gambit of trying to sell these plans he unveiled to the country. Can he deliver a message through the clot of partisanship, mistrust, sclerosis, and fatigue that will actually motivate people?
The president built his speech around using government to create “a rising, thriving middle class,” which he said will help shrink the budget deficit through creating economic growth. That growth will come through investment from the programs he was suggesting. He had a suggestion for every stage of life from nearly cradle to grave, starting with universal pre-school, secondary education, and college assistance all the way through the earning years to retirement when retirees will need a retooled Medicare. In a familiar construction, the president positioned himself as the guardian of Medicare, though he did reiterate support for modest Medicare reforms in order to achieve his goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction.
The president was offering a precision list in a time of blunt budget math. The “sequester,” the across-the-board budget cuts, are coming in two weeks. President Obama and the Republicans don’t look much closer to finding a solution to at least making the cuts smarter. This is the seemingly insurmountable obstacle standing between Obama’s vision of investment-led growth and a drastic dose of austerity. If those cuts do come, Obama said they would still be better than the Republican plan to avert the sequester, which he said would lead to cuts in education, job training, Medicare, Social Security, and other programs that would devastate the middle class.
So how does this get worked out? When you frame the debate with Republicans like that—reckless cuts vs. smart investments—you’re not looking to make friends. The president was not outwardly aggressive toward Republicans, but the speech did further confirm what appeared obvious before his second term began: Aggression is to be expected given his ambition, posture, selection of issues, and disdain for the leadership of the Republican Party. The president and his aides have already gotten good bio-feedback from this early posture. Obama won the debt limit and fiscal cliff fights pushing Republicans off of their anti-tax position. The president and his aides are mounting this strategy once again, hoping Republicans will drop their stance that the across the board cuts be replaced with other domestic spending cuts but no revenue from taxes.
The president’s speech had new elements but sounded thoroughly familiar to anyone who has been listening for the last several years. “Let me repeat—nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime,” Obama told a joint session of Congress. “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.” To Republicans the dime promise is a laugh line. Money that pays for new programs could go to cut the deficit caused by spending on the old ones. (It’s also a line he used when talking about health care spending in 2009) When Republicans hear the word “invest” they think spend. There is still a fundamental philosophical debate at the heart of American government: The president is arguing for more government and Republicans are arguing for much less.
The president ended his speech on a powerful note, telling the stories of the heroes and victims of gun violence. “They deserve a vote,” he said of legislation aimed at limiting the mayhem. “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote!” “The families of Newtown deserve a vote!” “The families of Aurora deserve a vote!” The crowd joined the call, responding to the mix of loss and bravery. It was the kind of swell of emotion that could lead to change after years of resistance. After nearly an hour of the traditional fare, it was like an entirely different speech. Too bad he felt like he needed the other 5,500 words.