Those ad-libbed words followed what ranks as one of the more polemical passages ever offered in a State of the Union address. “At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious,” he declared, “that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. 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 50 years.”
Good news, indeed, and in telling the Republicans that all their predictions turned out to be wrong, he reminded his fellow citizens which side, which policies and which president had brought the country back.
His analysis of the nature of his political opposition, in turn, dictated the approach he took in the rest of the speech. There was no point in hedging on his wishes, constraining his hopes or compromising in advance. Earlier in his administration, he might have begun the negotiations by offering his interlocutors their asking price upfront and then moving backward from there. No more.
Thus did he offer redistributive tax proposals — cuts for the middle class, increases for the very wealthy — and call for guaranteed sick leave for everyone, expanded child care, universal access to two years of community college and equal pay for equal work.
He even offered encouraging words to organized labor. “We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions,” he said, “and give American workers a voice.” And in defending a free-trade agreement likely to be opposed by many in the unions and in his own party, he tried to make his case in the name of worker rights. He is unlikely to persuade them, but it tells us which audience Obama had in mind that he framed his rationale this way.
And he got pretty personal with the honorable members of Congress when he renewed his support for an increase in the minimum wage. “If you truly believe you could work full time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year,” he said, “go try it.”
There is something odd in the notion that Obama is supposed to abandon his convictions because the Republicans won a low-turnout midterm election whose Senate races were fought mostly in territory hostile to Democrats.
Ronald Reagan was never asked to stop being a conservative after Democrats took the Senate in the 1986 elections and emerged in control of both houses of Congress. Republicans praised George W. Bush for his courage in upping his commitment in Iraq through the troop surge, even though the Democratic sweep of 2006 was in large part a repudiation of the war on which he doubled down. Are only progressive presidents expected to trim their sails?
There seemed to be a disconnect between Obama’s combative opening and his close defending his signature refrain that “there wasn’t a liberal America, or a conservative America.” He acknowledged that many saw it as “ironic” that “our politics seems more divided than ever.”
Obama clearly still believes that the country is less divided than our politics allows us to be. But he is no longer drawn to the illusion that his adversaries in the other party will beat their swords into plowshares anytime soon. He is battling not just for a personal legacy but also on behalf of a perspective that he hopes the country will someday embrace.