President Obama, all but shoved offstage during the Republican primary craziness, had a rare opportunity to grab the spotlight Tuesday night and attempt to answer a question at the heart of his reelection effort:
Just what does he want to do with another four years?
An election-year State of the Union is a tricky assignment, given that a divided Congress is unlikely to accomplish squat and the incumbent is already under daily assault by those who want his job. So as the halftime act between a pair of Newt-and-Mitt debates, Obama’s challenge was to sketch his vision of the future and rekindle some of the excitement he generated in 2008.
This laundry-list speech was an aggressive attempt, and Obama was savvy to lead off with Iraq and close with a moving recitation of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. There were laudable sentiments: “An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.” That sounds Clintonesque, and in fact Obama recycled one of the 42nd president’s signature phrases, lauding those who “work hard and play by the rules.” This line was a bit more bumper sticker-ish: “No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts.” (Except he did help bail out the banks, and boasted in the speech about rescuing General Motors.)
But the bar may have been impossible to clear. Three years into an ailing economy, words are no longer enough. The state of our union may be “getting stronger,” but Obama knows it’s not strong enough. And to briefly call for “comprehensive immigration reform,” when the White House never mounted a push for the legislation, simply falls flat.
The speech’s subtext is that Obama stands for middle-class fairness while his Republican opponents are champions of the wealthy.
The president acknowledged the perception that “Washington is broken,” and called for Congress to reform itself. Anyone want to take bets on that happening?
Obama offered a number of small-ball initiatives, such as asking companies to work with community colleges on hiring. And there were lofty promises, such as urging schools to reward good teachers, with no concrete proposals attached. And even if there were, where would the money come from with both parties arguing over the deep budget cutbacks mandated after the supercommittee’s demise? Read more.