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Obama's Penultimate State of the Union: Swagger, Successes and Not Screwing It All Up

Having accomplished many of the goals he established for the nation six years ago, Obama carried himself with a confidence and swagger we've never quite seen from him in the past.
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Sue me, I love the State of the Union. Always have. I enjoyed it even when George W. Bush was president, and the record shows how I felt about the Bush administration. (I particularly liked Bush's State of the Union in 2006 when he warned against creating "human-animal hybrids," obviously to prevent a pig-man dystopia.)

However, based on some remarks on Twitter and here at The Daily Banter, not everyone agrees, calling it a waste of time or political theater. Sure, for many of us who follow politics around-the-clock, our faces pressed up close to our computer screens and handheld devices, mainlining every headline, it can often be an anti-climactic and predictable event.

So, I can absolutely grasp the notion that it might appear boring or superficial but it's not event designed for political junkies, nor should it be. A vast majority of viewers aren't junkies, they're casual observers of politics, perhaps hearing about many of the successes, proposals and reactions for the first time. Eliminating the event for all of its theatrics and pomp would only disengage more viewers from the process. Besides, it'll never actually happen so suggesting it should is little more than shouting for the rain to stop.

Yes, politics includes a considerable helping of theater, tradition and forced collegiality which can admittedly grow exhausting, and Obama's penultimate State of the Union has plenty of that. And, sure, a lot of us in the political press were well-versed on many of the areas Obama covered. But, dammit, it was fun -- the Nerd Super Bowl -- and the night began with this:

What's not so fun is the one lagging economic indicator in an otherwise strong recovery. Flatlined middle class income growth and overall income inequality are hugely disappointing aspects of the recovery, and it's obvious from his address that it's one of the president's nagging regrets going into his final two years -- two years in which it'll be nearly impossible to force his agenda through the Republican Congress.

The Agenda

In spite of the fact that each of these proposals is quite popular, here's what probably won't happen:

--The president's proposed $235 billion middle class tax cut in the form of tax credits, including one for child care, while paying for it with a bump in the capital gains tax from 20 to 28 percent on gains above $500,000. Needless to say, this will pigeonhole the GOP which claims to love tax cuts, revealing the Republicans to only love tax cuts for the rich.

--A national minimum wage increase.

--Equal pay for women.

--Sadly, his free community college proposal will probably fail as well. Why? Again, because the GOP will never allow it unless Obama caves on, say, Obamacare, which he won't do.

However, this proposal received a standing ovation on both sides:

Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than thirty times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come.

Turning the Page

Either way, these are proposals that are now on the table and forcefully injected into the national debate, just as the 2016 presidential campaign begins to congeal. Gathered together, the biggest and most effective section of the president's address had to do with not repeating the same mistakes we made in the early 2000s by squandering the surplus and the high tide of economic prosperity of the 1990s.

“We are fifteen years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world. It has been, and still is, a hard time for many.

But tonight, we turn the page. [...]

“At this moment – with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production – we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth. It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come.

Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”

Shorter Obama: let's not fuck this up. We're nearly out of that mess, so let's not repeat the mistakes of 15 years ago -- mistakes that helped precipitate 2008-2011. And we can expect Obama to use executive orders wherever legally possible to see to it. Ridiculously enough, not even an increasingly popular chief executive along with increasingly popular agenda items in the State of the Union will manage to overcome a ferocious GOP opposition, while the 2016 Republican field will soon characterize both the recovery and the president as failures.


Regardless, few in politics had more justification to enumerate all the ways in which our economy has improved.

We believed we could reverse the tide of outsourcing, and draw new jobs to our shores. And over the past five years, our businesses have created more than 11 million new jobs.

We believed we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil and protect our planet. And today, America is number one in oil and gas. America is number one in wind power. Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008. And thanks to lower gas prices and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save $750 at the pump.
We believed we could prepare our kids for a more competitive world. And today, our younger students have earned the highest math and reading scores on record. Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high. And more Americans finish college than ever before.

We believed that sensible regulations could prevent another crisis, shield families from ruin, and encourage fair competition. 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 ten 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 fifty years.

This is good news people.

Indeed it is. Remarkable given the unprecedented opposition and obstruction this administration has confronted, both on the Hill, in state capitals and throughout what David Frum called "the conservative entertainment complex."

Foreign Policy

In the foreign policy section, Obama called for an authorization of force against ISIL. On Russia, while the camera focused on Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Obama said:

We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies. Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, some suggested that Mr. Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.

The contrast is undeniable despite the chorus of Republicans accusing Obama of being weak and effete in the face of the might Putin and his glistening pectorals.

And, once again, Obama remains the only president to discuss the climate crisis in his State of the Union address. As for this one, here was a particularly salient hit against deniers:

I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.

Something Different

What's always surprising -- and by now, it shouldn't be -- is that every time Obama delivers one of these addresses, he appears to confound the stereotypes we hear about on cable news and online. This year's State of the Union was no exception. Here's a fantastic example:

I’ve served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn’t what you signed up for — arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision.

Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.

That's far from the demonic, polarizing monster we hear about on Fox News Channel.

The Swagger

Perhaps the most entertaining moment of the night came when Obama said, "I have no more campaigns to run." A group of Republicans began to applaud, and, over subsequent laughter at the reaction, Obama stopped, smirked and said, "I know because I won both of them." BOOM! Mic drop.

Having accomplished many of the goals he established for the nation six years ago, Obama carried himself with a confidence and swagger we've never quite seen from him in the past. It was one thing to achieve healthcare reform, the stimulus and so many other legislative accomplishments, but it's another thing to see those accomplishments manifest themselves in actual economic prosperity. If there was any reason to watch the address it was this: we only need to remember six years ago to know what can happen when we lose our way.

(Thanks to Tommy Christopher for the additional reporting.)