That was an incredibly ambitious speech.
Imagine, for a moment, that President Obama managed to pass every policy he proposed Tuesday night. Within a couple of years, every 4-year-old would have access to preschool. The federal minimum wage would be at $9 — higher than it’s been, after adjusting for inflation, since 1981. There’d be a cap-and-trade program limiting our carbon emissions and a vast infrastructure investment to upgrade our roads and bridges. Taxes would be higher, guns would be harder to come by, and undocumented immigrants would have a path to citizenship. America would be a markedly different country.
In some ways, what was most noticeable about the speech was what wasn’t in it: Nothing. It was difficult to come up with a single policy favored by Obama’s party but left out of this speech. The speech included the politically possible and the politically implausible. It had the poll-tested policies, like small tweaks to encourage manufacturing jobs, and policies that have a tougher time in the polls, like putting a price on carbon.
It’s often the case that candidates are more ambitious than presidents. But Obama’s second term is showing precisely the reverse progression. The speech went much further than Obama’s 2012 Democratic convention speech. There, his address was notable mainly for how modest the policy proposals were. Here, his speech was notable for the sweeping nature of the proposed changes. Obama’s agenda hasn’t been this bold since 2009.
The difference between 2009 and 2013, of course, is that Democrats no longer control the House of Representatives. Most of these proposals have little chance of becoming law, at least right now.
But the difference between 2011 and 2013 is that Obama isn’t content to let Republicans drive the agenda. He just won an election, and he intends to set the terms of the discussion. The past two years have been all deficit, all the time. But the president doesn’t intend to let the next two years be similarly dominated by the debt. Republicans such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) have begun working to find an agenda that goes beyond deficits and articulates a positive role the government can play in an individual’s life. Obama is beating them to it.
Much of Obama’s second-term agenda may not pass. But he has an agenda, and it’s an ambitious one.