In the first minute of his hourlong State of the Union address, President Barack Obama summed up his theme in single sentence: “Tonight, we turn the page.”
The president then detailed a page of history filled with the financial crisis of 2008, the recession and unemployment and deficits that followed and the two distant and difficult wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It was a reminder of the ills that helped elevate young Sen. Obama to the Oval Office six years ago. And now, after many battles, he was ready to declare he had turned that page.
Reasonable people will dispute whether that page has been turned, or how completely.
But no one can doubt that this president, in his own mind and on his own terms, has turned a personal page. He now feels free to say that “the shadow of crisis has passed,” and to take credit for it — at least with those Americans willing to allow him some.
Obama would not have dared make such a speech a few months ago, when the country was panicking over Ebola and transfixed by the sudden rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. He could not have spoken this way through much of last year, when the economic evidence was more mixed and his own approval rating was slouching toward the oblivion below 40 percent. Climbing back to 50 percent, while far from a mandate, can make a president look and feel a whole lot better.
So, whether or not the country has entered a new phase, the Obama presidency most certainly has. Some of that has to do with the economy stirring to life, the jobless rate and energy prices falling and the mood of the country rising. When asked if he feels liberated these days, the president himself cites these factors in saying yes.
But his new sense of assertiveness also owes much to the curious effect of losing the Senate majority in November. For the past four years, hobbled by the loss of the House in 2010, Obama has restrained and even contorted himself to protect a slim Democratic majority in the Senate. He needed the Senate for many reasons, including to approve appointments with which he repopulated the federal judiciary.
Incumbent Democratic senators in Republican-leaning states often complained of Obama as a burden to their re-election, but worrying about their re-election was at least as hobbling for Obama. Now that those seats have largely been lost, ironically enough, the White House has a freer hand. A similar dynamic is at work in the House, where the steady dwindling of white Southern Democrats has diminished the Democratic Caucus but also unified it.
Thus those Democrats who remain are more inclined to back the president when he gives voice to his inner liberal, as in this State of the Union. The net effect is a president who seems more direct and forceful. The ease and confidence with which he rolled through this, his sixth State of the Union evoked memories of his campaign highs in 2008 and 2012.
President Bill Clinton had a similar challenge in his latter years in office. But his remaining allies in Congress tended to be more widely distributed across the political spectrum. And when Clinton did move to his left, he was always careful to present his plan in the most centrist terms he could. Having begun his political life in Arkansas, with a legislature nominally Democratic but decidedly conservative, Clinton operated this way out of both inclination and instinct
At one point in Clinton’s presidency, he foresaw a budget surplus in the offing and wanted to claim it (and forestall a wave of tax cuts). He accomplished that in one line of his January 1998 State of the Union speech: “Save Social Security first.” That idea had appeal across the board and dominated budget negotiations for the next two years.
Obama’s political and personal history have been quite different. And now, confronting a Republican Congress very much on the march, his instinct is not to clothe liberal ideas in centrist language but to pitch them with a populist edge.
Thus the centerpiece of the State of the Union speech, the first big presidential address since the November GOP victories, was a tax plan that would raise taxes on capital and investment and banks. The beneficiaries would be students at community colleges (two years of free tuition) and working families with kids, two incomes and retirement plans.
Call it Robin Hood economics, call it class warfare. But it is undeniably partisan because the two parties have so utterly diverged in economic philosophy. What seems a no-brainer policy choice to one is anathema to the other. So Obama’s “middle-class economics” plan was calculated to tread upon a toe that is both acutely and predictably sore.
Republicans find Obama galling, in part, because he seems so blithe in defying them. They naturally feel that their triumphs last November put them in the driver’s seat for good in Washington (not to mention roughly two-thirds of the states). To them, the historical page that is being turned at this moment is the one with Obama’s face on it.
So it takes no degree in political science to see this State of the Union as the opening salvo not just for 2015 or for the 114th Congress but for the 2016 political season as well. Republicans feel sure their momentum will carry through to the presidential election. Long-standing tradition favors the opposition party after an eight-year presidency. But Democrats believe they can beat that tradition if they get the working-family vote to swing back in their favor from the defeat of 2014 to victory in 2016.
In this address, the president gave that particular pendulum a good hard shove.