With a strong, optimistic beginning and an unforgettable ending, that may have been President Obama’s best State of the Union speech. Apparently none of the commentators who have been saying his presidency is on its last legs bothered to let him know.
He opened with a portrait of the country – not an America gripped by crisis or mired in despondency, but a sunny place where unemployment is falling, school test scores are rising, housing prices are recovering, deficits are shrinking and manufacturing jobs are coming home. “I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America,” Obama said. The big problem, he said, was the performance of the people sitting before him in the House chamber: “We are not doing right by the American people.” He went on to excoriate Congress for its insistence on trench warfare, challenged his opponents to “focus on creating new jobs, not creating new crises” and pledged that if Republicans won’t work with him, he will take executive action where possible.
But the president’s tone throughout the speech was buoyant, not sour. His defense of the Affordable Care Act was an observation that House Republicans’ first 40 useless votes to repeal the law really should suffice. Even when he bludgeoned the GOP over long-term unemployment benefits or the minimum wage, he did it with a smile. His argument for equal pay and family leave? “It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode.” His call for raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10? “Join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise.”
There was much that Obama did not say. I heard only one vague, substance-free sentence about domestic surveillance. There was no real discussion of foreign policy until the speech neared the one-hour mark, and the really tough problems where U.S. ideals and interests are out of alignment – Egypt, for example – were not grappled with. The specific executive actions he has vowed to take are significant but not earth-shaking – with one exception: Obama promised to use his authority to regulate carbon emissions. If he is as serious about tackling climate change as he said tonight, this may turn out to be one of the most important speeches of his presidency.
The end of the speech, a tribute to wounded Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, was an indelible moment. To end with such a powerful story of bravery and resilience gave emotional depth to the overall theme of the speech: America is back. I don’t know how much of his agenda Obama will achieve. But I’m pretty sure the last three years of his presidency won’t be boring.