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

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

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:

“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.

Comments (27)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/21/2015 - 09:22 am.

    The parallel between the Obama “middle class economics” and the Romney reinvention as an advocate for the poor and an opponent of the concentration of wealth is pretty striking. The coming (inevitable) battles against the Obama proposals pretty much cut out any move of the Republicans to capture the demographic that cares about that issue. That on top of the knee-capping of Rubio on Cuba, and JEB on immigration leaves a Republican party leaves a very thin slice of ground that Republicans can campaign from. Red meat Republican candidates will run against the Clinton machine.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/21/2015 - 09:32 am.

    Surprise!

    Obama is a Democrat.

  3. Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/21/2015 - 10:43 am.

    To quote a previous moment in presidential political history

    He laid out in clear terms what 2016 will be about, regular folks vs. the rich. Please proceed, republicans, please proceed.

    • Submitted by Tim Walker on 01/21/2015 - 11:22 am.

      I agree, Matt

      This speech was all about setting the parameters of the debate for the 2016 election.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/21/2015 - 12:59 pm.

      “From each according …

      Not all Americans believe they have a right to what someone else has, nor do they believe it is the government’s role to confiscate it for them.

      • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 01/21/2015 - 02:40 pm.

        It it belongs to them

        If it belongs to them, Dennis, then I am certain that your “someone else” prefers the government’s role be placating those who have been ripped off by the “have mores” for last several decades.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/21/2015 - 08:38 pm.

        Agreed!!

        Seems that many of the super wealthy however do believe!
        And by more or less any means they can come up with.
        And that was the point that was made “Unfair playing field”

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/21/2015 - 12:41 pm.

    Few surprises

    …beyond “I won both of ’em.” I enjoyed that little just-a-trace-of-a head bob that went with the line. Might as well be a little bit feisty on your way out the door. Otherwise, yes, he’s a Democrat, but not a very far left one – at least in terms of policy. In my youth, he’d have qualified as a “moderate Republican,” a species that now appears to be extinct.

    I’m inclined to agree with Tim Walker and a couple of the TV pundits that Obama was laying out parameters for the 2016 campaign. I’d need to see a LOT more substance before I’ll believe that Mitt Romney’s conversion to an advocate for the poor has passed from the realm of comedy into reality. At the moment, I don’t believe it.

    Of course, I don’t believe a lot of what Republicans say. In addition to Obama’s line, some of my Tuesday night enjoyment came from watching Joni Ernst’s ostensible GOP reply. Obama sounded like a post child for specificity compared to the fuzzy platitudes delivered by the new Senator from Iowa. My enjoyment came from watching her relentless smile. I kept waiting for her cheeks to crack and splinter.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/21/2015 - 01:40 pm.

      Romney’s $4 million a year

      to charity notwithstanding. Compassion isn’t measured by how much you give away of someone else’s money.

  5. Submitted by Richard O on 01/21/2015 - 01:17 pm.

    Disappointed

    I saw a very cocky guy on the podium last night and I was very disappointed in his performance. I did like his comment about trying to raise a family on an annual $15k income. As far as setting the tone for “the debate,” I didn’t hear anything from him that even remotely suggested compromise, common ground, working together, etc. except for the pipeline.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/21/2015 - 02:34 pm.

      Good

      Less to clean up for next administration to clean up if the Republicans aren’t allowed to screw everything over again.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 01/21/2015 - 10:31 pm.

      Of course you did…

      Everyone from the GOP sees Obama as “cocky.” If he was a republican, the very same people would be admiring his wit, “down to earth” persona, and want to have a beer with him. As for compromise, I hope he extends the same spirit of cooperation that the GOP has shown him during the past six years….and vetoes their bills into oblivion.

  6. Submitted by Ken Bearman on 01/21/2015 - 01:47 pm.

    Righty analyst Brit Hume put it this way: “… Basically [Pres. Obama] made a set of offers that he knows Republicans can’t accept and won’t accept.”

    That’s not different from, “Basically Republicans offered a set of proposals they know Pres. Obama can’t accept and won’t accept [such as repealing the ACA for the 50th time].”

    Nothing new to see here: Politicians in Washington making political speeches.

    I didn’t watch or listen to any of them. Thank you for your summary, Eric B.

  7. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/21/2015 - 01:50 pm.

    The American public seems to be liking this “new” and feisty Obama, who by executive actions is taking on the GOP’s inaction and obdurate opposition to every single thing the President proposals (the part of “No.”) His approval rating is up, especially among those Americans who actually know some details of the subject they’re expressing an opinion on.

    Basically, Americans are in favor of fairness. And more and more of them know–contrary to incredible GOP claims–that a president can help create conditions for job creation, but he can’t get the corporations to pay their employees a fair wage. That’s still the major drag on the economy, and it’s not Obama’s fault or his to fix.

    They know he’s doing what he can. Defiantly. More and more of us seem to like that.

  8. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/21/2015 - 04:30 pm.

    Let’s see..

    On immigration reform, Cuba relations, minimum wage, middle class tax cuts you can find clear support from a majority of all Americans and the GOP tells us these things are all “dead on arrival”. It has not yet really sunk in to these Senators and Representatives that this is why their approval among US citizens is about one third of that of Edward Snowden, a likely traitor living under the auspices of Vladimir Putin.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/21/2015 - 09:36 pm.

      Obama lost the last election

      He’s the one who claimed that even though he wasn’t on the ballot, his policies were.

      “I am not on the ballot this fall. Michelle’s pretty happy about that. But make no mistake: these policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them.” – Barack Obama, 10-2-2014

      And “his policies” took a beating. So there’s that.

  9. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/21/2015 - 08:15 pm.

    Reality

    Here is a response to those praising Obama’s economic policies: http://news.yahoo.com/middle-class-decline-looms-over-final-years-obama-130212665–business.html. On the other hand, even the good things came either despite Obama’s intent (deficit reduction is due to reduced spending that Republicans advocated and low oil prices are due to Republicans “drill, baby, drill” policies) or without his intervention (high Dow reading). And of course all his additional proposals are money-spending ones (or should I say money-wasting?)…

    And Obama’s gloating over Russia’s economic trouble just shows how little he (and his fellow liberals) understands Russia. In fact, Putin doesn’t care about allies but he does have them – Iran, Syria, China… (Hey, isn’t Obama’s strategy of negotiating with Iran to send Iranian uranium to Russia which is an equivalent of asking a fox to guard a hen-house?) But he kept Crimea and is about to get all the western Ukraine and his rating is through the roof in Russia. As for economy, Russia has seen worse times – it will pass when Europe will get tired of the sanctions. So basically everything Putin wanted he got – and even more (I am sure Crimea was the actual goal and no one even talks about that now).

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/22/2015 - 09:11 am.

      At least

      according to the Dalton, GA Chamber of Commerce.
      But then, chambers of commerce have become a wing of the Republican party.

  10. Submitted by richard owens on 01/22/2015 - 03:18 pm.

    CNN/ORC poll says AMericans liked the President’s ideas.

    “1.What was your overall reaction to President Obama’s speech tonight?” 81% positive
    “2. Do you think the policies being proposed by Barack Obama move the country in the right direction or the wrong direction?” 72% right direction
    “The economy” 71% right direction
    “Immigration” 60% right direction
    “Taxes” 64% right direction
    “Education” 78% right direction
    “Race Relations” 74%
    “Terrorism” 69% right direction

    Republicans “doth protest too much.”

  11. Submitted by Richard O on 01/22/2015 - 05:03 pm.

    I understand your point, but what was the percentage of “Americans” who tuned in to the show?

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/22/2015 - 05:22 pm.

      Probably

      Higher than the mid term election (being facetious). The point is the same, if one is going to claim mandate from a tiny slice of the electorate, one can do the same from a polling sample.

  12. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/22/2015 - 07:33 pm.

    Who supports who

    American Chamber of Commerce supports immigration reform so it is not a Republican Party wing. And Mr. O’Neil is right – my wild guess is that only Democrats watched Obama’s SOTU speech.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/23/2015 - 09:21 am.

    Remembered?

    Eric, can you cite a SOTU that IS remembered? I don’t remember any SOTU’s. Hardly a criteria for judgement.

    I liked it as well but it surprises me that so many people fail to grasp the significance of Obama’s speech.

    It does’t matter how many of Obama’s proposals become law, the proposals themselves set up the parameters of the next debate and election cycle, an election cycle that the republican’s will loose badly if the democrats take Obama’s lead. In fact, the more republicans block Obama’s proposals the more damage they do to themselves, and they can’t help it. Obama just wound up the clock, and now it’s ticking towards a catastrophe for the republicans. Obama nailed it when he asked why republicans are focusing on a single pipeline when the nations entire infrastructure needs updating and repair.

    One could make a good argument that the best thing that could happen for democrats over the next two years would be a congress that passes one vetoed law after another. This would prove that even with a majority republicans can’t get anything done, and can’t do the peoples business.

    I hope the democrats tighten up their narrative in the coming months. They need to bang away at the folly of magical thinking and ignorance. When republicans ask: “why would we raise taxes?” The answer is simple: “because we’re not competing with Somalia or Nigeria.” As a nation we’re competing with advanced economies that are investing billions in their education systems and infrastructures. Nor are our competitors allowing billions to be sucked into inefficient and costly health care or military spending.

    I’m a little curious as whether or not republicans will be able to avoid a shutdown, they’re already backing themselves into a corner.

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