For a politician who has fought his last election, U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last week sounded a lot like a stump speech from the campaign trail. More significantly, a man who many expected — or hoped — would be chastened and reflect on the resounding defeat his party received in the November midterm elections instead came out swinging, arguing that it was time to “turn the page,” and then outlined an aggressive and ambitious agenda for his last two years. In truth, Obama’s State of the Union was a campaign speech, one intended to define and frame the stakes in the 2016 ballot.
The Democratic Party was soundly thrashed in the midterm elections, in a vote that Republicans characterized as a referendum on Obama’s presidency. With control of both houses of Congress, the GOP believes that they have the whip hand in Washington and that Obama should now be ready to embrace their priorities. Contrition was not on the menu in the State of the Union, however.
Instead, they got a feisty call to arms by a president who is buoyed by polls showing his approval ratings reaching 50 percent, an 18-month high. Those numbers reflect a reviving economy, which posted 3.9 percent growth in the third quarter of 2014, unemployment dropping to 5.6 percent, numbers last seen before the financial crisis, and the creation of more than 11 million jobs over the last five years, which as the president explained in his speech “put more people back to work than Europe, Japan, and all advanced economies combined.” Oil prices have been dropping, which is another boon to consumers, and the U.S. is now an energy exporter.
Not only did Obama celebrate his successes but he did so in a way that directly challenged Republican ideology and policy. He dismissed the Keystone Pipeline proposal, one of the GOP’s top priorities, as a “single oil pipeline,” and urged them to pass an infrastructure plan that would create more than 30 times as many jobs and “make this country stronger for decades.” Then, he threatened to veto any actions that the GOP majority might take to undercut his signature initiatives, such as health care, new consumer finance protections or immigration reform.
While Obama may have been defiant, he was not indifferent to the Republicans. He encouraged them to join him on common ground, which many believe will include some form of tax overhaul, immigration reform and trade initiatives such as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA, frequently called “fast track” authority since it speeds up passage of trade bills through Congress by prohibiting amendments), which is a precursor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.
The president highlighted TPA in his State of the Union address, a signal that it is now one of his top priorities. In securing TPA and TPP, Obama will have to demonstrate genuine leadership by taking on the opposition from his own party. Obama’s support for TPP is a return to first principles. His logic echoed that of his National Security Strategy, articulated at the outset of his first administration, which argued that the foundation of U.S. strength and stature in the world was a function of its economy. In the State of the Union, Obama returned to that theme, noting that most customers for American businesses live outside the U.S. and that the country cannot afford to let other governments write the rules for trade.
As in the past, foreign policy got little notice in the speech. Obama called for a congressional authorization for military action against the Islamic State group as well as new legislation to strengthen cyber security. He noted that the U.S. is modernizing alliances in the Asia-Pacific and “making sure that other nations play by the rules — in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, and how they participate in meeting common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief.” Finally, he emphasized that “no challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.” Yet Obama will be addressing that challenge through executive action; Congress will offer him no support on that topic.
Five times in the State of the Union, the president referred to “middle class economics.” This phrase is perhaps the most important of the speech. It is an attempt to define the battleground not only of U.S. politics in the remaining two years of his presidency, but for the Democratic Party as well. Obama is not yet a lame duck, but he is clearly focused on his legacy. Part of that includes setting the terms of engagement for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination and the campaign that will follow.
While his critics would never agree, in truth Obama had swallowed many of his more progressive instincts in the effort to forge bipartisan solutions to his nation’s problems. Now, he is returning to the themes that animated his initial run for the presidency: halting the rising inequality that has characterized the recovery and ensuring that all Americans share in the prosperity that is being created. Obama will have limited ability to reverse that tide in his remaining two years, but he can prepare his party and his country for the debate that must follow. The State of the Union was the first salvo in this fight.