State of the Union speeches have their limitations. And especially in this political climate, they seem to be as much about scoring points as anything else.
But in many ways, President Obama’s speech last night was a significant one. He made it clear that he won’t spend the last two years of his presidency cowering under his desk.
Republicans may have their internal problems, but they’re united in opposing anything Obama wants. Obama seems determined to keep pushing his agenda, and if the applause last night was any indication, House and Senate Democrats are finally ready to join him.
The speech certainly contained big disappointments. The middle class has critical needs, but Obama’s focus on them last night verged on pandering. And his omission of measures to address the nation’s poverty crisis is stunning.
He is obviously concerned about such issues as Afghanistan, Russia, Syria, and ISIS, but last night he seemed to downplay them. That makes it too easy for John McCain and others to portray him as clueless and disengaged.
Overall, though, it was a good, strong speech that highlighted a variety of challenges: climate change, child care, the minimum wage, workers’ rights, tax reform, infrastructure, the Internet ….
And his emphasis on American values — which he linked to topics such as torture, Guantanamo Bay, voting rights, the stereotyping of Muslims, and foreign policy — was significant.
Foreign policy is one of the key differences between Obama and many Republicans in Congress. Thanks to Obama’s understanding of history and of the complexity of international conflicts, the United States has begun to back off from some of the dangerous approaches of the past.
Last night, he was eloquent on that topic: “The question,” he said, “is not whether America leads in the world, but how.”
“When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads,” he said, “when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military, then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world.”
“We lead best,” he said, “when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents.”
Obama has plenty of accomplishments to be proud of from his first four years. He clearly intends to try to add more, and to make it clear who bears the blame when sensible proposals fail to get action. And it was good to see him as confident and determined as he was last night. That attitude will be important over his last two years.
Republicans seem determined to keep shrugging off the threats from climate change. They have no interest in the kinds of middle-class assistance that Obama is proposing. They threaten to undo the administration’s careful negotiations with Iran — a move that is both misguided and dangerous.
By himself, Obama can only do so much. Republicans now control both the House and the Senate, and Democrats need to match Obama’s confidence and determination. And they need to stand by him as forcefully as they did last night.
If they do, the country could continue on the progressive path that Obama has set us on. If they don’t… if they panic every time Mitch McConnell or John Boehner waves a fist… if they let the Republican conservatives write the script, we’ll see a turn to the right in foreign policy, in the environment, in financial regulations. We’ll see an erosion of the progress we’ve made in health care. And we’ll likely be set up for a conservative, anti-science, pro-rich, super-hawk president.
A lot is hanging on Congressional Democrats right now. We should start learning soon whether they’ll live up to the promise they seemed to show last night.