By James Boggs
The State of the Union is, according to President Obama, “strong.” Speaking first about the hardships our country has endured these past 15 years, Obama declared that, “the shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.” Pointing to the growth rate of the economy, low unemployment and the successful withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan as indicative of the country’s recovery, Obama echoed numerous presidents of the past, reassuring the American people that the nation still stands strong. He maintained this positivity throughout the politically charged speech, keeping his address upbeat while subtly challenging the new, Republican-controlled Congress.
Though he covered a broad range of topics, his primary focus was the economy. Indeed, more than a third of his speech was dedicated, in some way or another, to the concept he called “middle-class economics.” As is becoming increasingly typical in long-winded political speeches such as the State of the Union, Obama began his comments on the economy with the story of an average, middle-class family. It’s a tactic that’s proving popular, and Obama wielded it well, transitioning directly into a list of his economic accomplishments.
Touting record numbers of college graduates, Wall Street regulations, the results of his Affordable Care Act and rapid economic growth as signs of the success of “middle-class economics,” Obama bluntly admitted that he would veto any attempt by the Republicans to roll back these or any other programs. In his crystal clear statement, he announced that, “if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, it will earn my veto.”
Obama went even further, claiming that Congress ought to expand welfare services. “That’s what middle-class economics is,” he said, “the idea that this country does best when everyone has a fair shot.” Going on to explain what exactly that entails, Obama outlined a robust, if controversial, set of economic reforms, ranging from mandated maternity and sick leave, to free community college and job training, to trade deals in Asia to funding for science and infrastructure, and even discussing tax reform. Among the most controversial was his call for a minimum-wage increase, in which he said to opponents of minimum wage, “If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it.”
The final part of his economic outline was based on increasing America’s competitiveness abroad. Among the ways Obama wants Congress to promote American competitiveness in an international market are infrastructure plans, trade deals in Asia and scientific research. The president used the address to launch his Precision Medicine Initiative, and to restate his commitment to send a man into orbit for a whole year. Using these ambitious projects as a springboard, Obama continued on to make a vague statement about tax reform. Sticking to the standard political line, Obama mentioned that loopholes in the tax code ought to be reformed and that he wanted to lower taxes on the middle class.
Moving away from the economy, the president proceeded to discuss the success of the United States’ actions abroad, and where it needs to go in the future. Tackling the Middle East first, the president called on Congress to authorize the use of military force against ISIS, after praising U.S. leadership in the region.
Russia was another issue Obama chose to hold up as an American victory, stating, “It is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.” He also touched on relaxation in relations with Cuba, ending the half-century long embargo, and on nuclear negotiations with Iran, citing the cessation of their nuclear weapons program as evidence of America’s dominance and declaring that he would veto any further sanctions against the country.
From these two major issues, Obama discussed numerous other issues of less import: cyber-attacks and cyberterrorism; climate change, on which Obama took a definitively pro-environmental stance; Ebola and other global pandemics; crime and punishment, including torture and the prison system; speaking out against stereotypes; and increasing the transparency of the intelligence community. In all cases, he took a fairly liberal stance, including reiterating his determination to permanently shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
It is at the end of his speech that Obama completed the execution of a beautiful political maneuver. The final part of his speech set the Republicans up as a stubborn obstacle, rather than a valid political party, if they oppose his views. Throughout the speech, and particularly in the last bit, Obama commented on how his party and the Republicans have “common ground.” He set up each measure or idea he proposed as necessary for the country to prosper, and then offered to work with the Republican Party to achieve this. In other sections of his speech, he was more confrontational, stating directly that he would veto any bill that rolled back the changes he made during his term. Contrasting these two positions, Obama made himself out to be a people’s politician, willing to work with his political enemies, but not backing down in a fight. Simultaneously, he cast his enemies as the stubborn ones, as if by refusing to compromise on his terms they are hindering progress.
Once again the State of the Union address has been used as a political weapon. In this instance, it’s the last strike of a now-crippled president whose party has lost control of Congress. Though Obama gave the speech an air of power, as if it was the opening salvo of a new push for legislation, the reality of the situation makes it a defensive act, an attempt to limit the damage Republicans do to the progress the Democratic Party has made. Obama and his party don’t have the power to promise real change, so instead the president decided to force the Republicans to choose between compromising and appearing bitter and extreme.