If there is one thing consistent about President Barack Obama, it’s his ability to defy the odds. His nomination over Hillary Clinton in 2008 and his eventual election as president made history. His seventh State of the Union speech, delivered on Tuesday, clearly showed his intention to resist any lame-duck status as he enters the final stretch of his presidency.
The State of the Union speech is an occasion for the president to tout his achievements and outline a path for the coming year. It is an ambitious wish list coupled with the hope—and maybe the possibility—of actually getting things done. This year’s speech was no exception.
The difference between this year’s speech and Obama’s earlier addresses was the president’s tone and passion. For many of Obama’s early supporters, the passion seemed to have dissipated since his 2012 re-election. The 2014 mid-term election drubbing to the Republicans indicated that the presidency was about to enter the predictable lame-duck status. Many referred to Obama’s last SOTU address as accomplishing very little in terms of concrete actions.
Just like his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama is now facing a Congress led by the opposition party in his final two years in office. By the midterms, all the talk about legacy was beginning to be relegated to the verdict of the historians, with the presidential sweepstakes soon to begin. While the usual post-election platitudes were uttered by both the president and the Republican leadership about compromise and cooperation, no serious observer took them seriously. Lame-duck status had arrived.
Then a series of events in November and December occurred, and Obama began to sound like the Obama of 2008. On immigration, he chose to use an ambitious executive order to grant relief to some undocumented immigrants. He also concluded a climate change agreement with China, making it possible for the world’s two largest economies to agree on something vital. His sanctions strategy regarding Russia’s behavior in Ukraine was beginning to have an impact. Finally, Obama used skillful diplomacy to reinstate diplomatic relations with Cuba, with the hope that someday, the 50-plus-year trade embargo would come to an end.
Essentially, Obama told the nation that he will use the powers of his office to fulfill the vision he so effectively articulated on the road to the presidency. Yes, he is willing to compromise with the new Republican-dominated Congress, but he is also ready to use executive action, not hesitate to veto moves deemed contrary to his policies and his vision, and finally employ the bully pulpit to mobilize support. Judging by the recent improvement in his approval ratings (some as high as 50 percent, depending on the polls), it seems that his efforts are in line with the expectations of the voters.
This year’s wish list was based primarily on middle class economics, and Obama spoke of childcare support, paid sick days, free community college education, higher taxes on the rich, and measures to reduce income disparity between the rich and the middle class. It was the kind of populist message for presidential primaries. Hillary Clinton quickly tweeted her approval.
Clearly, many of Obama’s proposals were deemed dead on arrival by the GOP leadership. However, he may have touched the right chords with voters, thereby setting up the agenda for the next presidential election. A popular president with an appealing agenda who uses the powers of his office can go a long way in resisting lame-duck status.
Beyond the wish list, Obama was correct in presenting an optimistic picture for the future—unemployment is down (to 5.6 percent), jobs are being created in large numbers, the deficit is shrinking, wages may soon begin to rise for the middle class, energy production has grown exponentially under Obama’s watch, healthcare coverage has increased substantially while the inflation costs have decreased, and progress has been made on in-sourcing jobs.
Obama also set the stage for some important potential progress—bipartisanship tax reform, a new infrastructure program, and the possibility of widescale trade agreements with Europe and Asia. All these are actually doable if both the White House and Congress are willing to govern through collaboration, as opposed to confrontation and division.
Obama’s second-to-last State of the Union address could have been his last, as he spoke of values and referred to his speech in 2004 about “no red states, no blue states, just the United States of America.” It was uplifting, passionate and profoundly human in its delivery. It heralded, in effect, the return of the Barack Obama people voted for 2008 and 2012. Time will tell if it was just a speech.