The first two years of the Obama presidency were a frantic rush of policymaking with barely any concern for political messaging, which suffered as a result. Tonight’s State of the Union address was just the opposite. President Obama knows full well that Republicans in Congress will block everything. In the absence of policy, he is backfilling the political narrative.
Obama passed an economic stimulus quickly in 2009. This immediately exhausted Congress’s willingness to spend any money on the economic crisis. Because no further action has been possible since then — and, to be fair, the administration only came to fully realize further action was needed over the last year — Obama alienated the public by talking about priorities other than the economic crisis. This time he began with the crisis and rattled off a long list of what are surely poll-tested solutions, some sensible, some not.
Likewise, the financial bailout, authorized by the Bush administration, came to hang over Obama, and polls showed that most people incorrectly thought Obama and not Bush came up with the bailout. So this year’s speech was full of tough talk on Wall Street, touting the Dodd-Frank regulations and urging even more. ("It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: No bailouts, no handouts, and no cop-outs.")
That was the defensive portion of the politics. Vast portions of the speech were devoted to setting out a favorable contrast with Mitt Romney. Obama praised the auto bailout, and noted that some (i.e., Romney) had argued in favor of letting General Motors fail. Obama cited Warren Buffett and his principle that millionaires should never pay a tax rate lower than their employees. On housing, he insisted, “responsible homeowners shouldn’t have to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom to get some relief." (Romney has advocated letting the housing market bottom out.) And even on foreign policy, he proclaimed, “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” This is not just a rebuke to Romney’s attacks on Obama’s foreign policy but an attempt to turn them into evidence of Romney’s lack of qualification to conduct foreign policy — a classic technique of an incumbent president against a challenger lacking foreign policy experience, one Obama has barely touched until now.
Not just the specifics but the general theme was designed to probe Romney’s weaknesses. Obama’s political team believes the dapper, well-born corporate raider will have trouble connecting with the white working class, which has otherwise been a demographic weakness for the president. Hence his relentless focus not just on economic fairness and shared prosperity but on manufacturing, community colleges, and a wide swath of economic proposals offering concrete benefits to precisely this group.
For such an intensely political speech, the address contained a surprisingly wide array of new policy proposals. The proposals to encourage manufacturing sound, in general, like a terrible idea. (Favoring a particular sector is called “industrial policy.”) His proposals to reform runaway costs in higher education, reform Senate filibusters of appointments, and toughen prosecutions of financial crimes sound highly promising. He presented a plan to increase energy production from all segments, dirty and clean alike, which is popular but stupid. He knows full well the priority is to limit carbon emissions.
Indeed, many of the themes of Obama’s speech stooped to the prejudices of the electorate. He contrasted the bickering of politics with the unity of the military, which of course is a hierarchical organization that elected institutions can’t and shouldn’t emulate. He talked tough about unfair foreign trade practices, which has a basis in truth, but proclaimed, “If the playing field is level, America will always win,” which is insane.
It was the speech of a man who realizes that he has only one thing left to do, and that is to win reelection. The Obama of 2009-10 was a pure pragmatic wonk, and his inattention to politics hurt his standing. Through sheer bloody obstruction, Republicans forced him to the only available alternative, which was to use his office solely as a political platform. His agenda is dead, but his public standing has benefited. Perhaps one day Republicans will wish they had been a little more flexible, and had kept the old, wonky, bargaining Obama rather than the slashing populist who’s cutting their throats.