Skip to main content

State of the Union 2014: Populist Obama Grabs the Reins

It was a speech directly aimed at the best interests of middle class Americans, and was almost entirely focused on job creation and fairness in wages and income, with income inequality as a spotlighted issue.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Back in late 2008 when President Obama was transitioning into the White House, I wondered out loud how long it would be before Republicans began to hector him about abusing executive power. It'd be especially ironic given how they didn't say a damn thing about the previous administration's abuses. But it only took a couple of days for that prediction to come true as the congressional Republicans, Fox News and talk radio began to confusingly accuse President Obama of being the next Stalin, Hitler and Mao.

Tuesday night, however, this "Dictator Obama" myth reached new heights when word got out that the president would be ramping up his efforts to pursue his agenda with or without the help of Congress, including his clearly totalitarian decision to raise the minimum wage for new government contractors to $10.10 (that's an annual pre-tax salary of $21,008 per year, by the way, and hardly enough to make ends meet).

Alex Jones, during his State of the Union coverage, repeatedly referred to the president as "Der Führer" and compared the speech to Emperor Palpatine's speech in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, going so far as to quote the on-the-nose Natalie Portman line, "This is how democracy dies, with thunderous applause." He also posted the following graphic as the logo for his coverage.


Elsewhere, Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX) tweeted, "On floor of house waitin on "Kommandant-In-Chef"... the Socialistic dictator who's been feeding US a line or is it 'A-Lying?'" See what he did there? Line sounds like "lying."

And so when the president said, "...wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do," you could hear heads exploding from Alex Jones' radio studio to Rush Limbaugh's walk-in en suite medicine cabinet.

Yes, the president does indeed plan to sign executive orders to move his agenda on everything from the minimum wage to sensible gun control. But he also went out of his way to ask Congress to work with him, punctuating the speech with language like "we need to work together," "bipartisan" and "send [the legislation] to my desk."

Even if he hadn't, the truth is this president has signed the fewest number of executive orders since the second Grover Cleveland administration. 168 so far. No wait, correction -- George H.W. Bush signed two fewer orders in one term. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, signed 381. George W. Bush signed 291. Jimmy Carter, in his one term, signed 320.

Dictator? No. Math doesn't lie.

What about the rest of the speech?

This was easily the president's most populist State of the Union, and maybe one of his best. Within the first five minutes, he framed the administration's signature achievements using descriptions of the real-life human impact of those successes, and he called out the Republicans for shutting down the government and playing grabass with the debt ceiling. Nice contrast between success and inaction -- positive and negative action.

It was a speech directly aimed at the best interests of middle class Americans, and was almost entirely focused on job creation and fairness in wages and income, with income inequality as a spotlighted issue. At one point, the president blasted "workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode."

One of the acts the president plans to tackle without Congress, while also welcoming the help of Congress ("If this Congress wants to help, work with me."), is to create a new kind of savings bond mirroring an IRA, known as a MyRA.

A few other lines that resonated:

--"But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did." It's a shame this needed to be said in an age of scientific and technological advancement, but there it was. Refreshing but also frustrating that so many Americans need to be reminded that the climate crisis is real. And it's a foregone conclusion that most of those people won't care... because Obama.

--"Let's not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that's helping folks like Amanda." Amanda... and me.

--"No one should have to wait more than a half hour to vote." I was particularly happy to hear this since voting rights are one of the most important issues of our time, and the fact that we can't carry on convenient, easily accessible elections in one of histories great representative democracies is a bloody crime.

--"Our sons and daughters will not be mired in unending war." Six years ago, I never thought we'd hear a president say this.

The speech ended with one of the most emotional, inspirational personal anecdotes I can remember. All modern presidents do this, so it's easy to be cynical about the tear-jerker hero story crowbarred into a joint-session address. But I urge you to watch this one about an Army Ranger, Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg who was wounded in Afghanistan after serving in ten -- yes, ten -- deployments.

The longest ovation came when the entire American government gave Remsburg, who was seated between his father and the First Lady, a rousing standing ovation that lasted what had to have been several minutes. You could plainly see the First Lady lean over to Remsburg and tell him, "We're proud of you." Indeed we are.