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 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?
Of course, the president can do some things on his own, as Clinton figured out when stymied by the Gingrich Congress. Obama is creating a trade-enforcement unit that will go after unfair practices, another unit to investigate mortgage fraud, and ordering the Pentagon to buy more clean energy.
The economy was at the heart of the speech, but gridlock still rules Washington. While it sounds good for Obama to demand that American companies pay a minimum tax for profits earned overseas, there’s no chance Congress will go along. The president’s pitch for a Buffett Rule in which millionaires pay an effective tax rate of at least 30 percent may have added resonance after Mitt Romney’s tax returns showed him at 15 percent, but chances of passage are 0 percent.
The speech’s subtext, of course, is that Obama stands for middle-class fairness while his Republican opponents are champions of the wealthy, who make their own rules. Even Eric Cantor, whose party bobbled the issue before Christmas, had to clap when Obama called for extending the payroll-tax cut. There was even a nod to another grand bargain, trading entitlement cuts for tax hikes on the rich—precisely the deal that eluded the president in 2011.
We’ve known for five years now that Obama can give a great speech. It’s hard to imagine this one will be remembered for long once the campaign heats up.
The Daily Beast’s Daniel Stone contributed to this report.