President Obama’s emotional call for new gun laws, or at the very least votes on them in Congress, was noteworthy because there were so few moments of passionate eloquence in his hour-long State of the Union address. A reference to the space race seemed like a labored attempt to revive the American imagination in a time of cramped expectations.
But laundry lists are popular, as Bill Clinton proved with his epic annual addresses, and this one from Obama is going to be valuable. By laying out his hopes and dreams for a second term, he gives us a yardstick by which to measure him.
When Obama leaves office, will we have universal preschool, cheaper college, redesigned high schools, a better tax code, a revamped immigration system, and a $9 minimum wage tied to inflation? Will there be more manufacturing, easier voting, a trade agreement with the European Union, trims to Medicare and Social Security, a declining debt? Will we have made any headway in reducing carbon emissions and upgrading our infrastructure? Will Iran have backed away from its nuclear program? Will millions of unemployed Americans, at last, have jobs?
These are his goals and he will be judged accordingly.
In fact, some of what Obama is proposing at the start of his second term reflects a failure to reach objectives he laid out at the beginning of his first term. He pledged in his February 2009 address to cut the deficit in half and to provide help for homeowners at risk of foreclosure. He also asked Congress to impose a market-based cap on carbon. Now he’s taking another stab at all three.
Obama has accomplished some of what he laid out back then, including health reform, revival of the auto industry, and raising the tax rate on wealthy Americans. He also succeeded at the most profound challenge he faced, dragging the country out of a terrifying financial freefall. “Our economy is in crisis,” Obama said then. It was almost an understatement, coming as the stock market was tanking and hundreds of thousands of jobs were vanishing every month.
The president reprised the word “crisis” Tuesday in different context, one that brought to mind the ruins of bombed-out London or Dresden. “We have cleared away the rubble of crisis,” he said a few hours after the Dow hit a five-year high, and now we need to stop creating artificial crises.
Republicans had plenty of scorn for Obama, starting with the seeming gap between his many proposals and his assertion that he wouldn’t add a dime to the deficit. And though he needs GOP help if he wants to turn any of his proposals into reality, his performance was vintage second-term Obama: Hold the warm fuzzies.
Obama started right out confronting Republicans on the next fiscal cliff, calling their ideas “even worse” than the draconian combination of defense and domestic cuts due to kick in March 1. He issued a couple of executive orders before the speech and said he was going to prepare a bunch more on carbon emissions in the event Congress didn’t act. He preempted (co-opted?) House Majority Whip Eric Canter’s proposal for more college transparency on costs by announcing his administration would issue a College Scorecard on Wednesday.
Even Obama’s infrastructure pitch seemed overlaid with a bit of snark. “I know you want these job-creating projects in your district. I’ve seen all those ribbon-cuttings,” Obama said. Was that a sly reference to “gotcha” photos of lawmakers at ribbon-cuttings for projects made possible by money they voted against?
Obama pleased the GOP side when he said that “we will do what is necessary” to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, but for the most part he pointedly narrowed the mission of the United States on the world stage. The war in Afghanistan will be over by the end of next year, he said. “We don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations,” to fight terrorists, he said, and promised direct U.S. action only against those “who pose the gravest threat to Americans.”
As for the rest, we’ll help other nations protect themselves, help them in their fights against terrorists, and “keep the pressure” on the murderous Syrian regime, whatever that means, which seems like not much so far, and that seems to be fine with most of the public.
The State of the Union address was preceded by an unusually nasty Senate committee meeting at which a freshman questioned the patriotism and character of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel, and by the deadly manhunt, gun battle and fire in California. Obama's priorities are in many respects in tune with a country weary of war, violence and polarization, which is why he is looking outside Washington for help in getting them passed.
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