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Barack Obama

President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gestures as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (Charles Dharapak/AP, Pool)

President Barack Obama used the first State of the Union address of his second term to put forth a comprehensive plan for defining his legacy.

He relied on campaign-sourced, battle-tested rhetoric to make his case during the hour-long speech. Obama devoted about three quarters of his time to domestic policy, where he believes much of his legacy will be defined. He also moved toward closing the final chapter on the era of the Bush wars — which propelled Obama’s unlikely run to the presidency — by pledging to bring home 34,000 troops from Afghanistan.

Iran’s nuclear program, in contrast, warranted a single sentence, virtually ignored on this night of soaring social-compact rhetoric accompanied by a panoply of specific program proposals to appeal to his base. Second terms and hostile nations, though, have a funny way of not playing out as expected when a president is still basking in the glow of election victory.

Obama relied on campaign-sourced, battle-tested rhetoric to make his case… he devoted three-quarters of his time to domestic policy, where he believes much of his legacy will be defined.

Obama continued the strategy that worked so well over the last year, challenging the Republican majority in the House time and again to work with him to put the “nation’s interest before party.” He continued to use the reliable frame of pitting “seniors” and the “middle class” against the “wealthy” and “most powerful” to coax the House into compromising on sequester negotiations, and put out the bait of linking budget cuts to higher tax revenues by closing “loopholes.” He was laying the foundation for another barnstorming trip around the nation to beat the GOP for a second time on the deficit since the election. And the GOP still has no answer.

President Ronald Reagan in the first State of the Union of his second term also pushed to close tax “preferences.” He mentioned myriad other topics in that address that were revisited by Obama Tuesday evening — job training, promoting home ownership, preserving Medicare, maintaining national security, streamlining regulations, citing how paltry per capita income is in many developing nations — and how open trade could improve these conditions, and he even mentioned Afghanistan. This odd symmetry may betray a timeless source for Cody Keenan, the president’s new chief speechwriter and former Sen. Ted Kennedy aide, or it’s simply that some of these issues always play well in the State of the Union.

Where tonight’s address departed significantly from Reagan’s is that Obama’s intentions were clear, whereas Reagan’s lacked focus and relied on vague statements of principle. This may have reflected Reagan’s aversion toward government programs and his laissez-faire style. It may have also been a precursor, though, for a second term that meandered and ended up with serious ethics and personnel challenges. The Obama second term, in contrast, should be very focused pursuant to this standard because there is no doubt about what he is going to try to accomplish.

One strand of Obama’s address resembled a shopping list of new and pre-owned liberal causes, like proposals to deal with climate change, “paycheck fairness,” immigration reform, energy conservation, voting rights, gun control, and the immortal COLA to the minimum wage.

A second strand offered up trillions in new spending, or “investment” in Obama vernacular, allegedly without adding to the deficit by a “single dime.” This breathtaking array included the administration’s usual infrastructure spending proposals for bridges, high-speed rail and school construction, but the president then went for the gusto and offered up a vast program to guarantee pre-school education to every child in the nation.

Despite his massive program proposals, Obama humbly emphasized it was all about a “smarter” rather than a “bigger” government.

He couched his rhetoric about ‘investment’ in the importance of promoting “science and innovation,” invoking the space-race rhetoric of President John F. Kennedy — his second JFK reference of the evening. It would be fair to refer to Obama’s modern-day version of Camelot portrayed in this address as “Spendalot.”

The president’s pollsters must be detecting unease among voters about the size of government in light of the nationalization of healthcare in the first term and, perhaps, about the longer reach of government given high-profile debates over the use of drones on American citizens and the fact that capabilities agencies now have to access private e-mail and text-messaging accounts. So, despite his massive program proposals, Obama humbly emphasized it was all about a “smarter” rather than a “bigger” government.

Obama may have struck gold, even for many on the conservative end of the spectrum, with concepts such as developing a trans-Atlantic free trade agreement — an excellent idea, but one that seems nearly impossible given the tariffs and regulations that suffocate EU member states. His ideas of holding universities accountable for their obscenely rising costs, and the emphasis on upgrading our labor force to face 21st-century challenges, seem like they were pulled straight out of a GOP playbook.

Nonetheless, although Obama made a bipartisan plea to be “partners for progress” with the GOP in Congress, and underpinned his proposals with the noble argument that Americans have a civic duty to each other and to future generations, his continued divisive rhetoric based on economic class rendered this language hollow.

It remains unclear whether Obama is establishing a sustainable ideological foundation that will survive a second term and pass onto the next Democratic presidential candidate. What is clear, though, is that Obama threw the gauntlet down. Will the GOP respond?

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  • massappeal

    Thanks for this column. I’m a bit confused though. How is it that President Obama “threw the gauntlet down” by advocating ideas that “seem like they were pulled straight out of a GOP playbook”? When did climate
    change, immigration reform, energy conservation, and
    voting rights become “pre-owned liberal causes”?

    How is a speech that addresses many of the same issues (often with similar proposals) as President Reagan’s 1985 state of the union address—”job training, promoting home ownership, preserving Medicare, maintaining
    national security, streamlining regulations, citing how paltry per
    capita income is in many developing nations — and how open trade could
    improve these conditions, and … Afghanistan”—an example of President Obama’s “divisive rhetoric”?

    If conservatives are uncomfortable about the current divisions in our politics, perhaps it’s not because the first president since Eisenhower to win an outright majority in the popular vote in consecutive elections is divisive. Perhaps it’s because the Republican Party has somehow let itself be taken over by extremists who oppose today much of what Ronald Reagan accomplished in the 1980s.

  • http://twitter.com/MassPolProfMo Maurice Cunningham

    I enjoyed reading my friend John Sivolella’s critique of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union and I have some polite disagreements.

    John says that the president was largely playing to his base. Professor John Sides of themonkeycage.org has a good response in Obama’s
    Confrontation with Conservative Whites: “Obama may not be simply catering
    to the ‘coalition of the ascendant’ and more to, well, a larger majority of
    Americans” who, Sides argues, agree with the president on gay rights,
    immigration reform, gun control, withdrawing from Afghanistan, women in combat, and to a lesser extent, climate change.

    Sivolella also sees the president artfully backing the Republicans in Congress into a corner with his promises to work together, but “his continued divisive rhetoric based on economic class rendered this language hollow.” Divisive? As the billionaire Warren Buffett has argued, as the work of Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker in Winner Take All Politics and Prof. Martin Gilens of Princeton have shown, there has been an economic class war going on in this country for over thirty years, and the rich are winning. Divisiveness? When Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell announces in 2010 “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” well, let’s not allow the pot to call the kettle black.

    I agree with John that the SOTU under Obama as under Reagan has had the grandeur of a shopping list. John kindly does not call the speech dreadful, but I thought it was – mostly. It was saved, as I argue on masspoliticsprofs.com in A
    Dreadful State of the Union, Redeemed. I hope when you finish turning over
    John’s piece, you’ll read mine.

  • s

    these speeches are always about wish lists, that we as taxpayers all pay for…like making out a birthday gift wish list…

  • BostonBased

    John, I wish you well with your Ph D studies. Study is the only way to understanding. Applied knowledge is the only way to wisdom. You have the opportunity to broaden your studies to encompass economics and gain an understanding of finance. The current Republican party is filled with ignorance and anti-intellectualism. They will not make America prosper.

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