At the emotional end of his speech, Obama renewed his call for tougher gun laws — a politically treacherous issue that Republicans and even some Democrats are shying away from. He did so with passion, demanding again and again that Congress hold a vote.
Donald A. Baer, a senior aide in the Clinton White House, said Obama will achieve more legislative victories in his second term if he seizes the role of national leader and pulls his opponents across partisan dividing lines.
“He’s feeling more assertive, he’s feeling empowered by the election, and he’s trying to leverage his political power to bend outcomes in the direction that he thinks they need to go,” said Baer, now chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, a global communications firm. “But that raises the question of what the best way is to accomplish the deep changes that he wants to accomplish and what’s the best way for those to be sustainable changes.”
Although Obama won a decisive victory in November, this remains an era of political division. The country is sharply and stubbornly split, with the president’s approval rating far lower than his commanding 68 percent when he addressed his first joint session of Congress in 2009.
A slim majority of Americans, 52 percent, give Obama’s second-term agenda positive initial marks in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll; just 36 percent said they approved of the GOP’s policy agenda for the next four years. And more than half of those polled, 56 percent, said they are dissatisfied with the state of the country’s political system.
Obama’s suggestion that deficit reduction should no longer dominate the discussion is one that some Republicans have also begun to make.
In a speech last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) called for Republicans to “focus our attention really on what lies beyond the fiscal debates.” And in an address to the Republican National Committee in January, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal warned against “an obsession with government bookkeeping.”
Although inaugural addresses are supposed to be poetry, State of the Union speeches are prose. They are designed to give Americans a set of concrete proposals by which to measure how much progress the president and Congress make over the coming year. They are not calls to greater national purpose, with rare exceptions.
In the end, most of them end up being forgettable. And very often, they become a rehash of unfinished business. Obama acknowledged that on Tuesday night.
“It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country — the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like or who you love,” Obama said. “It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few.”