Conservatives attacked President Obama’s inaugural address last month as an old-school progressive program. He responded to that criticism in his State of the Union speech Tuesday–not by backing off but by doubling down. He used the forum to drive home his second term agenda of of immigration reform, raising the minimum wage, gun safety, climate change, public investment and winding down the war in Afghanistan.
In a shot at Republicans who claim he is determined to grow government, the president insisted he would not add a dime to the deficit. ”It’s not a bigger government we need,” he said, “but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”
Tuesday’s State of Union confirmed the emergence of a more combative president, after years of fruitless efforts to find compromise with a Republican party skewed to the right by Tea Party supporters, a party whose leaders explicitly set out to make his presidency a one-term failure. From the domestic stimulus of the Recovery Act to his foreign policy approach to the Arab Spring, the president repeatedly tried and failed to gain support among his conservative counterparts.
That first-term effort to find common ground gave way to a more confrontational approach in the State of the Union. When he sought bipartisan agreement, it was to condemn the inertia and brinksmanship that was the hallmark of the last Congress. Whether he was urging immediate action on gun legislation or broad investment in science and education, President Obama appeared more politically confident than in his earlier addresses to Congress. A challenge he laid down when discussing efforts to curb climate change could have been applied just as well to his approach to issues across the board: “If Congress won’t act soon, I will.”
Barack Obama has never suffered from a lack of self-belief. He challenged Hillary Clinton for the affections of the Democratic Party when he was only a freshman senator. He reformed health care when his senior advisers told him to back down. He won last year’s election with an economic message that many pundits thought would surely lose.
The newly-assertive president can already claim results. Before November’s election, immigration reform seemed like a reach; today it has widespread support. Gun safety legislation looked like a dream that would fade with each passing day since the Sandy Hook tragedy; today there is popular support for background checks.
Inside the White House, the president’s aides know they have little time to enact their ambitious agenda before the brief second-term honeymoon is over. The State of the Union was the first effort to accelerate that agenda while the president’s popularity remains high, and the Republican party remains in disarray.