Barack Obama opened his fourth state of the union address to Congress with words from another Democratic president, John Kennedy: “The Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress.”
Partners, not rivals. A little of the old, reach-across-the-aisle Obama was peeking through. But second-term Obama is not the naïf first-term Obama was. He was not beseeching Congress to meet him halfway, to find consensus and compromise. He was not, in fact, talking to Congress at all. He was talking about Congress to the American people.
In his inaugural address a few weeks ago, Obama offered an impassioned defense of modern liberalism. He rooted his vision for the future in the nation’s past, from the ideals of the founding to the civil rights struggles of the twentieth century. When he spoke of fairness, he waxed lyrical. When he spoke of his opponents, he got downright pugnacious. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle,” he insisted in a clear reference to congressional Republicans, “or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”
Many expected the state of the union to build on that combativeness. Instead, Obama emphasised how very reasonable his goals were. He presented his ideas not as bold initiatives to revive the liberal tradition, but as pragmatic proposals with widespread bipartisan support:
Sequestration: Obama decried the “sudden, harsh, arbitrary” cuts to the military and social programs set to go into effect this year, citing “Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, and economists” who agreed sequestration would endanger both the recovery and national security. He offered instead “modest reforms” and a “balanced approach.” Given that, as Obama pointed out, the $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction already passed iscomprised mostly of spending cuts, balance would no doubt be achieved with fewer cuts and greater revenue (i.e., taxes).
Climate policy: In both the inaugural and the state of the union, climate change was front and centre – a surprise, given how little the president mentioned it during the campaign. Last night (US time) Obama made a thinly-veiled call for cap-and-trade (a “market-based solution”). Yet he also insisted support for the policy was not limited to Democrats, pointing out Republican senator John McCain and Independent senator Joe Lieberman had worked on a similar bill a few years earlier. The camera lingered on a clearly uncomfortable McCain, who dumped his support for climate policy when he ran for president in 2008.
Voting reform: Desiline Victor, one of the “ordinary Americans” that have become a mainstay of state of the union addresses in recent years, waited hours to vote in Florida last November. The 102-year-old received a lengthy round of applause when she was introduced, the unreasonableness of her experience requiring little explanation. Yet here too the president emphasised broad bipartisan support. The new voting commission will be headed by two attorneys: one worked on Obama’s 2012 campaign, the other on Romney’s.
Gun control: The high point of the speech came when Obama spoke about guns. Two months after the massacre at Newtown, emotions ran high in the chamber. Deafening applause was punctuated by frenzied shouts. Yet while Obama grew more expressive and his language more rhythmic, his speech maintained its emphasis on reasonableness. He spoke not of sweeping changes or fundamental re-evaluations of America’s gun laws, but of “overwhelming majorities” supporting “commonsense reforms.” Even his refrain was measured: victims of gun violence from former representative Gabby Giffords to the families of Newtown “deserve a vote.” One could argue they deserve much more than that, but a simple vote was all Obama asked.
Why such a restrained approach? Because Obama wanted Americans watching to ask themselves: Who could possibly be against that? It is a question invariably answered with “the Republicans in Congress.” Who opposes a compromise on sequestration? The Republicans. Who opposes John McCain’s sensible cap-and-trade plan? The Republicans – including John McCain. And who opposes a vote on gun control legislation, threatening to filibuster any bills that come to the Senate? You guessed it: the Republicans.
Though he used a lighter hand, Obama’s message in the state of the union was the same as in his inaugural: the main obstacle to meeting the challenges of the day is not a lack of will or a dearth of ideas, but Republican intransigence. The president vowed to work around them when possible. “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations,” he said in his comments on climate change, “I will.”
But issues like the economy and immigration can’t be fixed with executive orders. They require Congress to legislate, a duty Republican members abdicated some time ago. Obama’s one hope for his second-term agenda is that the public will force Congress to transform from “rivals for power” into “partners for progress”. A long shot, to be sure, but his speech last night showed Obama believes it’s the best chance he has.