Obama's ambitious State of the Union address: 5 takeaways
The president packed a lot of policy, and some potent politics, into his hour-long address to Congress and the nation
The early reviews of President Obama's fourth State of the Union address are pretty good for the White House: A snap CNN/ORC International poll found that 53 percent of viewers had a "very positive" reaction to the speech, another 24 percent had a "somewhat positive response," and only 22 percent reported a negative response. The CNN sample skewed Democratic, but even National Review's Maggie Gallagher gave Obama an "A" for his "politically effective speech." (The conservative publication's editors were less impressed, panning Obama's "halting and graceless" spending-fest.) There was a lot packed into the hour-long address. Here, five things to take away from Obama's big speech:
1. This was an incredibly ambitious speechThat's the verdict of The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, who says that if everything Obama proposed gets enacted, "America would be a noticeably different country." Universal access to preschool, a $9 minimum hourly wage, new gun-control measures, immigration reform, climate change legislation — "in some ways, what was most noticeable about the speech was what wasn't in it: Nothing." Much of his wish list may not pass in Congress, especially the GOP-controlled House, but he's not shying away from attempting big things. "It's often the case that candidates are more ambitious than presidents. But Obama's second term is showing precisely the reverse progression."
2. But perhaps not too ambitiousObama's policy list wasn't really all that "big and bold," says Ron Fournier at National Journal. It was more an "incremental and pragmatic...mixture of old proposals and new ones fashioned on the cheap, bowing to the obstinacy of his GOP rivals and the brutal fiscal reality of the times." It's probably a good thing "Obama has recalibrated his ambitions to match the moment," says Doyle McManus at The Los Angeles Times. "A soaring speech full of ambitious new goals wouldn't make sense in the Washington of 2013," and many a second-term president has foundered on over-ambitious goals, even in better times. The "most historic proposal in the speech" may end up being the boring-sounding free-trade agreement with Europe. If Obama gets that done, plus immigration reform, even modest gun-control laws, and ends the war in Afghanistan, "that's not a bad list" of accomplishments. "Plenty of two-term presidents have done worse."
3. He didn't explain how we'll pay for it allA lot of Obama's proposals would seem to be pretty expensive, "but White House officials refuse to put a price tag on the programs — or to reveal how, in fact, they would be paid for," says Kevin Bohn at CNN. All Obama said in his address was that nothing he proposed "should increase our deficit by a single dime." If you want to know specifics, the White House says, wait for Obama's upcoming budget proposal. Obama loves that dime line — he used it during the fight for ObamaCare, and in last year's budget battle, says David Weigel at Slate. But so far, at least, Obama "has been right about this": ObamaCare cut the deficit, and his jobs bill was fully paid for. Still, "to Republicans the dime promise is a laugh line," says John Dickerson, also at Slate. "Money that pays for new programs could go to cut the deficit caused by spending on the old ones." Obama's new programs won't convince the GOP to support more government, even if they are deficit-neutral.
4. Obama went big on gun controlBefore the speech, the "biggest looming question" was "how forceful he would be on guns," says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post. The proposals he and Vice President Joe Biden put forward to stem gun violence, after all, have "met with an indifferent, to put it mildly, response from Congress" so far. Well, the president went big.
Obama's decision to save his remarks on guns until the end of the State of the Union and to aggressively urge a vote on all of his gun proposals were, by far, the boldest portion of his speech. If you are looking for a takeaway from the speech, it is this: "Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote." Obama's comments on guns will be the lasting legacy of this speech and a sign that his past pledges to use all of his political power to bring about measures he believes will curb gun violence was not simply rhetoric. [Washington Post]
Obama's "evocative call to give gun violence victims a voice put pressure on Republicans in the House not to bottle up gun control legislation in committee," says Marc Ambinder at The Week. But it also "put his own party on notice about gun control." A lot of vulnerable Democrats would probably rather not give gun-control measures a vote, and Obama isn't letting them off the hook.
5. Above all, he's trying to shift the debate leftwardThere was a lot of gracious bipartisan talk from Obama, but he was essentially selling a new political "brand with a distinctively retro flavor — 'Democrat Classic,'" says Glenn Thrush at Politico. The "vintage proposals," like raising the minimum wage, expanding education to pre-kindergarten, and building up our infrastructure, are all part of "a clear effort by Obama to nudge the nation's politics to the center-left, a shift from the center-right politics of Ronald Reagan that have dominated American political life for more than three decades." It seems to be working, says Daniel Gross at The Daily Beast. After two years of letting Republicans set the parameters of budget discussions, Obama is "pivoting from deficit reduction to demand production, from cutting spending (and hence employment and wages) to raising them" — just like voters asked him to.
Last November, the electorate firmly expressed its preference for left-of-center economic policies over the right-of-center approach of cutting taxes for the rich and assuming everybody else will generally benefit. Today, the nation effectively got the economic speech it voted for. [Daily Beast]