The Bullpen

Obama's State of the Union speeches, past and present

Washington has changed the president — not the other way around

Paul Brandus

If you want to know how Washington has changed Barack Obama — it's certainly not the other way around — just go back and read the  State of the Union addresses he has given since taking office.

Actually, I'll spare you such a dull chore. I've read them so you don't have to. And they show, year by year, the cynical realities of a divided capital gradually overtaking the president and eroding his hope that Democrats and Republicans could work together for the common good.

Of course, the problem lies in the definition of "common good." In 2009, the president thought this meant a stimulus, ObamaCare, investing in renewable energy, and asking for a cap-and-trade plan. Republicans had other ideas, and by 2010, Obama's tone changed: "Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can.... It's precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it's sowing further division among our citizens, further distrust in our government.... Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership."

And this was before things really heated up. In March 2010, Obama passed his divisive health-care law, and that October, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had had enough. "The single most important thing we want to achieve," he told National Journal, "is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Weeks later, Republicans took back the House and gained in the Senate, and Obama, acknowledging what he has called a midterm "shellacking," warned Republicans in his 2011 State of the Union not to think they could steamroll their Democratic opposition. "We will move forward together, or not at all," he said.

In the summer of 2011, tax and budget talks collapsed amid some of the worst acrimony the capital had ever seen; S&P downgraded the government's long-term credit rating. By the 2012 State of the Union, the president was reduced to this: "With or without this Congress, I will keep taking actions that help the economy grow."

But now, with Obama re-elected and Republicans questioning some of their policies and messaging, the dynamic has changed once more — this time in Obama's favor. The victorious president now has his highest approval ratings in 18 months; if it seems like he has gotten tougher since election day, it's because he has. Obama thinks he has newfound leverage and knows he has less than two years to act before the lame duck talk heats up. So what will he say in tonight's State of the Union? Look for these to be his top five priorities:

1. Jobs and the economy 
Even though this remains the top issue with most Americans, Obama has focused more on immigration and reducing gun violence since winning re-election. But since the economy shrank 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter and unemployment has inched up to 7.9 percent, these issues simply can't be ignored. It's unclear, though, what Obama can actually do here. Further tax cuts and/or big spending programs, two traditional ways of boosting economic activity, aren't in the cards. What is clear: The president, now in his fifth year in office, can no longer blame his predecessor for the economy. It's Barack Obama's economy now — and to be fair, it's also the economy of any Republican who continues to thwart him.

2. Spending and debt
One reason for the economic slowdown in the fourth quarter was a big drop in defense spending. The White House now warns that the "sequester" — big automatic budget cuts due to begin in March — would cause even more economic damage. Half the cuts would be in defense, the other half in just about everything else but entitlements. The hypocrisy here: This idea originated in the White House itself, back in 2011. The administration thought it was such a non-starter — a giant meat cleaver taking a deep and indiscriminate whack out of the economy — that surely Republicans hell bent on cutting the deficit would come up with a more reasonable way. Yet here we are. Obama, fresh off his tax-rate win on New Year's Eve, will call for more revenue tonight as part of what he calls a "balanced" approach; Republicans oppose further taxes, though are open to overhauling the tax code, which could be a backdoor tax hike on businesses.

3. Immigration
Obama, who won the Latino vote by a 44-point margin, will urge lawmakers to back his immigration overhaul plan, which includes a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants. Republicans understand the electoral price they'll pay if they continue to alienate this big and fast-growing voter bloc.

4. Curbing gun violence
The president will repeat his call for an assault weapons ban (which will not get through Congress), limits on magazines (which probably will not get through), and tougher and universal background checks on gun buyers (which has increasing bipartisan support and might get through).

5. Energy and climate change
In his first term, Obama called for cap and trade (which, as I've said before, originated with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush) and a landmark bill passed the House (then controlled by Nancy Pelosi's Democrats) but died in the Senate. The president, a believer in man-made climate change, would like to try again, but knows that even some Democrats will resist. Obama's likely path here is through the Environmental Protection Agency — a surefire way to spark future fights with the GOP. On the energy front, Obama acknowledges that fossil fuels will drive the economy for years to come, but will keep pressing ahead with the gradual transition to renewable energy. Look for him to repeat calls for ending oil company subsidies and upping tax breaks for the wind and solar power industries.

Want more on the State of the Union? I'll be hosting a live-chat with readers at 7:30 p.m. on The Week's Facebook page. Be there.


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