SOTU 2015: A Slumping President Finds Some Swagger
Not long ago, things were not looking up for President Obama. Approval ratings at all-time lows, yet another midterm election defeat and the grim prospect of his remaining few years in office alternating between partisan gridlock showdowns and lame duck irrelevancy seemed to signal an underwhelming end to a presidency that held so much promise to so many when it began in January of 2008.
But on Tuesday during his State of the Union address, America saw a President Obama that it hasn’t witnessed in some time. Buoyed by the recent rise of the economy, Obama came out confident and feisty, naming his accomplishments and shaming his opponents. He came out with a series of modest but important proposed initiatives as well, attempting to strike a populist sweet-spot with the innocuous sounding title of “Middle Class Economics.”
Whether one finds these proposals and their packaging cynical and slick, given their unlikelihood of being passed into law, or optimistic and inspiring may very well depend on one’s partisan preference. Likewise, whether it is the president’s policies specifically that have helped the economy, rather than the natural recovery cycle following all economic downturns or the unexpected collapse of oil prices worldwide is a debate for economists and historians. With that being said, there can be no doubt that the State of the Union found Obama in a high and fighting spirit, a spirit that will encourage the left-wing of his party that he will not simply roll over in the face of conservative opposition but may even find a way to push through his own initiatives, not unlike he has attempted to with Cuban foreign relations and immigration issues in recent months. The defining moment of the address was one that encapsulated Obama’s mood. After the president noted that he had no more elections to run for, some Republicans applauded sarcastically. Without missing a beat, President Obama shot them a sideways glance and retorted: “I know, because I won both of them.”
Although the speech was solid, it was by no means an American classic to be studied alongside the rhetoric of Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, we have heard much loftier and impressive oration from President Obama in the past, whether in his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Committee or his Inaugural speech in 2008. But this was not the occasion for inspiration or high-mindedness; this was a punchy, partisan Obama looking to make a case for his populist vision.
There were concerning and troubling aspects to the State of the Union as well. Despite warning against an over-eagerness to engage the nation in conflicts overseas, Obama then went on to rattle off in hawkish language a few different occasions where he refused “to take options off the table” (in the case of Iran), and urged Congress for support in crushing ISIL, an undergoing rife with potential pitfalls given the history of US engagements in the region. President Obama also decided to end his speech with a fairly typical trope of his presidency, urging bipartisan cooperation and mutual goodwill. While reducing polarization in the government and between the parties is undoubtedly a good thing, it came off as a strange choice given the tenor of the fifty minutes which preceded it.
Overall though, the real centerpiece of the speech was Obama’s push for “Middle Class Economics” and he was at his best when discussing these domestic issues. Whether these ideas ever become law is another story, but taking a quick glance at the unemployment statistics, stock trends, and other economic measures brings to mind another barb aimed by Obama to the Republicans during the State of the Union: “This good news people.”