About a year ago, one of the more common criticisms from President Obama’s detractors was that he’d become “disengaged.” A frustrated president, the argument went, had grown listless and cynical. Fox News actually fielded a national poll asking respondents if they thought Obama still wanted to be president.
After last night’s State of the Union address, it’s a safe bet we won’t hear those criticisms again for quite a while.
Love him or hate him, President Obama has rediscovered his audacity. Last night, Americans saw a bold president celebrating his accomplishments, chiding his rivals, and presenting an ambitious agenda built on a foundation of “middle-class economics” (a phrase he referenced six times in his remarks).
In some progressive circles, it’s not uncommon to hear the left long for the Obama they loved in 2004, when he burst onto the national stage at the Democratic convention in Boston. The president signaled that he’s still very much that guy by repeating the very language he used at the time:
“[J]ust over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America – but a United States of America…. I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.“I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long. I believe this because over and over in my six years in office, I have seen America at its best…. I know the good, and optimistic, and big-hearted generosity of the American people who, every day, live the idea that we are our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s keeper. And I know they expect those of us who serve here to set a better example.”
I half expected Obama to start a “Fired up, ready to go” call-and-response with Democrats in the chamber. (It was not the only flashback: towards the end of the SOTU, Obama said, “Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America.” It was phrasing direct from his first inaugural address in 2009.)
Nearly as interesting as watching the president last night was watching congressional Republicans seethe. GOP lawmakers were very likely coming to terms with a disappointing realization: every time they knock Obama down, he just gets back up. After the 2014 midterms, Republicans no doubt assumed that they would finally have their opportunity to set the national agenda and move the nation much further to the right, but the State of the Union served as Obama’s reminder to them: he’s still in the driver’s seat, he has his foot on the gas, and he has a growing number of Americans ready to follow his lead.
The result was a visual that Republicans should have avoided. Early in his remarks, the president ran through a series of notable breakthroughs:
“Today, we have new tools to stop taxpayer-funded bailouts, and a new consumer watchdog to protect us from predatory lending and abusive credit card practices. And in the past year alone, about 10 million uninsured Americans finally gained the security of health coverage.“At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years.“This is good news, people.”
Those last five words were ad-libbed and not in the original text. Obama felt the need to add them, of course, because he saw angry Republicans sitting on their hands despite the American successes. The president, in other words, was wondering aloud why GOP lawmakers weren’t willing to join everyone else in applauding good news for the country.
The answer, whether Republicans were willing to admit it or not, was that the breakthroughs were the results of Democratic policies, which GOP lawmakers fought to – and still hope to – destroy.
Taking a step back, one of the broader themes of the address was “turn the page,” a phrase Obama used very early on. It’s a simple, almost predictable line, but last night, it carried more weight than it ordinarily might. This was the State of the Union address in which the president finally felt comfortable starting an entirely new chapter – post-recession, post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, post-austerity, post-crisis atmosphere.
As far as Obama’s concerned, the race is now on to fill a new, blank page and write the next chapter, and he laid out a confident agenda intended to do exactly that. To this extent, the address was less of a speech and more of a challenge.
The president didn’t literally say, “Game on,” but he might as well have.