U.S. President Barack Obama has had one overriding priority since taking office five years ago: fixing an economy that had gone off the rails and restoring the foundation of his country’s international status.
It would be disingenuous to insist that this focus on economic recovery is divorced from political considerations — voters always vote according to their wallets — but every major policy and strategy document released by his administration is premised on the belief that it is U.S. economic strength that sustains America’s position in the world.
The challenge for Mr. Obama has been restoring growth at a time when he faces implacable opposition from Republicans to almost everything he does, and their bedrock belief that the most pressing economic problem is not growth but tackling a ballooning national deficit. This last position is especially problematic since it deprives Mr. Obama of the Keynesian remedies that previous administrations used — and that virtually every credible economist recommends.
Unlike his second inaugural address last month, which was intended to be a visionary statement for the nation, the State of the Union speech is a work plan that outlines the agenda that the president has for the upcoming year.
The big question hanging over this year’s speech was whether Mr. Obama would be “unchained” as some feared after his re-election and press a full-throated progressive agenda (as his second inaugural anticipated) or would reach across the aisle to embrace the opposition. This year’s speech was a little of both.
Mr. Obama’s agenda was ambitious and liberal. He called for a raise in the minimum wage to $9 an hour, a $50 billion plan to rebuild crumbling infrastructure, universal pre-school for all children from low- and moderate-income families, gun-control legislation and an assault on climate change.
He also said he would establish a bipartisan commission to study ways to eliminate the hours-long lines that voters increasingly encounter, and pressed legislators to send him a bill on immigration reform that he would immediately sign.
While the message was unabashedly liberal, Mr. Obama still reached out to Republicans, endorsing some of their initiatives and applauded some of them by name for their work on various projects such as immigration reform.
He pledged to support “modest reform” of some entitlement programs — a long-standing GOP demand — and promised that his changes would not increase the deficit.
He acknowledged the Republican call for deficit reduction and pledged to bring the yawning deficit down through spending cuts and tax reform.
That outstretched hand was quickly slapped away, however. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the president’s agenda as “another retread of lip service and liberalism,” and “liberal boilerplate.”
House Speaker John Boehner said that he will not bring Mr. Obama’s agenda to the House floor until the Senate passes legislation.
Anticipating that standoff, Mr. Obama said in his speech that he would take executive action if Congress fails to act. Given renewed GOP recalcitrance in recent days — it is delaying a confirmation vote on Mr. Chuck Hagel, the nominee for secretary of defense — the stage is set for more gridlock in Washington with all the collateral damage it is likely to create, such as a budget sequester and the steep cuts it will yield. This would negatively impact the U.S. international image and standing.
Given the speech’s purpose and focus, foreign policy issues occupied comparatively little space in the State of the Union — just 15 paragraphs.
Yet, in that space, Mr. Obama was equally ambitious. He promised to complete the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan while continuing the fight against terrorism. He will keep al-Qaida and its offshoots firmly in his sights: He is prepared to step up the use of drones to target terrorist leaders, a controversial policy, but pledged greater transparency and an effort to provide a “legal framework” for counterterrorism activities.
He said that he would “engage Russia” in efforts to further reduce nuclear stockpiles, an effort that will be complemented by the continued diplomatic outreach to Iran to halt its nuclear ambitions, but he also promised that all options would remain on the table if Tehran proved immune to his offers.
He also assured his audience that he would “lead the world in taking firm action” to counter North Korea’s nuclear provocations, including the third nuclear test that occurred the day before his speech.
Also, notably, Mr. Obama pledged that within a year he would work toward a comprehensive trade agreement with the European Union. This is again an attempt to square the circle, to use foreign policy to strengthen the U.S. economy.
Mr. Obama is confident that the U.S. can thrive in a world with reduced obstacles to trade and investment. He sees the changes that such negotiations force on his own country as an opportunity to bring about needed reforms at home.
It is an aggressive and ambitious work program. And, despite its scope and sweep, it is doable. The biggest obstacle Mr. Obama faces as he attempts to implement his agenda is the party across the aisle.
It is not yet clear whether the Republicans will continue to prioritize the thwarting of Mr. Obama’s every move or whether they will put partisanship aside and focus on fixing their country’s many problems. Much rides on that answer.