There’s an old joke in the politics world about mayors and governors who’d never approve a highway project that might take more than three years out of mortal fear that they might not be around to don the sash and cut the ribbon. Whatever problems Barack Obama has, he doesn’t have that one. A lot of commentators are amusing themselves by pointing out that very few of Obama’s long list of State of the Union goals are likely to make it into law while he’s in office. I say that seeing as how he’s a pretty smart man, he knows this. But he’s doing it anyway. Because he’s thinking more about history than his story, and because he understands that if he wants to be a transformational president, the change he initiates is going to have to continue well past his time—and yes, the great presidents have all thought this way.
The conventional wisdom is that the speech was a wish list, a Christmas list. I think that metaphor says more about the metaphorer than it does about Obama. If anyone understands the brutal reality of Capitol Hill, after what he went through those first four years, I’d reckon it’s Obama. My dear mother, a normally refined woman who nevertheless enjoyed a little earthy West Virginia humor, used to love the saying “wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which one gets filled faster.” Obama has seen enough of the latter from the Republicans to know that the former is a waste of time.
What is not a waste of time, however, is using your pulpit as president of the United States to lay out a vision for the sort of society you would like to see America become. Barack Obama is going to retire in January 2017, but history isn’t likely to end then. Obama knows that fighting climate change and getting universal pre-school and doing something to help the working poor are big jobs, long jobs. They’re certainly not going to happen under the current legislative configuration, and they’re probably not going to happen while he’s in office.
But they are going to happen. Even the knuckle-draggers will realize at some point in the future that climate change is real and something must be done. Universal or near-universal pre-school is a fact of life in most OECD countries, and someday it will come to pass in this one. And, someday, our country won’t be half-run by a bunch of lickspittles for global capital who think people earning the minimum wage just need to show a little gumption and responsibility. Yes, these things will happen, and when they do, a grateful country will look back in time and recognize the president who was the first to take these issues seriously (or in the case of the minimum wage, the first in a long time to give the issue such prominence).
This is confounding to the conventional political class. It’s a misuse of political capital. To them, a politician is supposed to play it safe and profess as his goals only those things that are potentially attainable. That Obama didn’t do that Tuesday night left them scratching their heads. Joe Scarborough decided that it must mean that Obama is preparing to go all out to elect a Democratic House majority in 2014 and make Nancy Pelosi speaker again—which he says, of course, in the same tone of voice in which one might say it looks like we have to let that drunk, schizophrenic relative move back in. Well, I hope Obama goes all out for a Democratic House. But he knows his history. He knows the odds are strongly against that happening. So no, that’s not his play.
Instead, his play is to inch us toward those goals however he can. He doesn’t take a conventional view of political capital. The clearest evidence from the speech was the “they deserve a vote” riff. He’s just asking for a vote. He knows when that vote is taken, his position may, and in the case of assault weapons would be almost certain to, lose. But he’s okay with that. It might lose this time. But three more massacres from now, it might not. He might not be the guy who’s there to sign the bill. But he’s okay with that, too.
Great presidents have all thought this way, and conservatives have had no trouble recognizing and celebrating the tendency when it was a president they liked. Ronald Reagan made unequivocal moral statements about the Soviet Union as Obama has made about climate change. The USSR didn’t collapse under his presidency, but when it did, conservatives wasted no time in crediting their hero.
This is the credit Obama is going to get one day, too. If three or four of these things pass in the next four years, great, all the better. But if they pass in the eight years after he’s done, everyone will know who put them in motion. And I have little doubt Obama will be happy to share the credit with the then-sitting president, whoever she may be.