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Obama’s State of the Union address: defiant and unlikely to make any difference

The president says there is not a red America and a blue America — an argument that’s increasingly hard to believe.

President Barack Obama delivering his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.
REUTERS/Larry Downing

I liked President Obama’s State of the Union address, but I doubt it will be remembered for much, I doubt it changed many minds and I doubt it will make any difference. Looking back at the sentence, I think I had better just apologize in advance for a politics-weary tone that I haven’t been able to shake lately.

It was a small surprise that Obama spent so few words offering compromises or even begging Republicans for a spirit of compromise — although, again, it would not have made much difference if he had. As various Republicans reacted to the speech in the aftermath, I didn’t hear much talk of compromise. That will have to happen in a back room somewhere, or not at all.

Instead, Obama defended his record, which generally adhered around the phrase “middle-class economics.” He said:

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“At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; 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. “

He reiterated his support for many similar “middle-class economics” policies, some of which were relatively new but were foreshadowed before the speech and some of which he has long favored.

These included raising the minimum wage, providing two tuition-free years for all at community colleges, paid sick leave, subsidized child care, some relief for students graduating from college with large debts, and more.

Little concrete talk

There was little concrete talk about how he proposed to pay for these new benefits, although there is little doubt (and has been floated in other settings for some time) that he favors higher taxes on the wealthy. And he did refer to the need to close some tax loopholes, to stop rewarding corporations that keep their profits overseas and changes in the inheritance tax.

Anyway, Obama said (unsurprisingly, of course) that he will soon submit a budget and that it will represent his policy preferences more concretely.

He specified several things that he knows Republicans favor and he opposes and promised that “if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, it will earn my veto.” In the aftermath, several Republicans denounced these threats as rude and hurtful, although I’d be surprised if many of them said similar things when Republican presidents threatened vetoes or actually vetoed something.

Obama claimed, without much detail and to a chorus of soon-to-follow Republican disagreement, that his foreign and military policies have made the United States safer and stronger while our rivals and adversaries have gone in the opposite direction. He noted ruefully that not long ago his critics claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive actions in Ukraine were “a masterful display of strategy and strength.” But on the contrary, Obama said, “today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.”

Moment of spontaneity

Obama stuck closely to his script, except for one moment of spontaneity that some will find evidence of his scrappiness and others will call bitter, especially considering the result of the recent midterm election. Toward the end, Obama chose to revisit the theme of the 2004 keynote address he gave at the Democratic convention in Boston that nominated John Kerry, the claim — which subsequent years have made harder to believe — that there is not a red America and a blue America but a single, united, red-white-and-blue America. As he prepared to wind up with a call for unity along similar lines, he said: “I have no more campaigns to run …” A couple of wiseasses on the Republican side of the audience burst into spontaneous, sarcastic applause. Without hesitation, Obama replied: “I know, cuz I won both of ‘em.”

 “A liberal speech by a liberal president,” Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said on Fox after the speech, and it seemed fair enough. Righty analyst Brit Hume put it this way: “He just made a speech in which he outlined a series of proposals, that were anything but new and different. … Basically he made a set of offers that he knows Republicans can’t accept and won’t accept.” Hume said the speech represented “an unreconstructed Barack Obama; an unreconstructed left liberal.”

I suspect some who are to the left of Obama might disagree with the second-to-last word.

Columnist Juan Williams, who serves regularly as a token liberal on Fox panels, called the speech “defiant.” I get what he meant.

The transcript of the speech, as prepared for delivery and not including the snarky aside above, is here.