The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A progressive economic blueprint from an emboldened president

Placeholder while article actions load

Obama’s Inaugural Address laid out an expansive progressive agenda that was focused heavily on civil rights and rooted in the founding values of the country. His State of the Union speech was Chapter Two of this story. It laid out a progressive economic blueprint that was focused heavily on nuts-and-bolts policy ideas and rooted in a much more basic call for economic fairness, shared sacrifice in bringing down the deficit, and aggressive government action to help struggling Americans gain access to the middle class.

Obama — having been lifted to reelection by an ascendant majority coalition of minorities, young voters, and college educated whites, mostly women — gave very little ideological ground to his opponents. His speech built on the Inaugural address in the sense that it continued to reshape the conversation around the priorities of these core groups — only with a more direct focus on the economy.

The biggest news in the speech was the call for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour. But the most important ideological moment in the speech came when he challenged the idea that reducing the deficit is good for the economy and renewed the push for more stimulus spending. “Let’s be clear: Deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan,” Obama said. “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.” We needed Obama to renew the case for more stimulus spending — while skewering the idea that reducing the deficit alone is good for the economy. As unlikely as it is that this Congress will agree to any more stimulus, it was important to hear Obama make this case.

The other newsmaking moment — working with states to make pre-school available to every child in America — was similarly cast as an important step in securing future economic security for the middle class. Obama renewed the pitch for equal pay for women — and shrewdly paired this with a call on the GOP House of Representatives to pass the Violence Against Women Act — redoubling the pressure on Republicans to support government action to help a constituency that is fast deserting the GOP. Obama’s vow to use executive action to combat climate change in the face of Congressional dithering was a similarly aggressive challenge to Republicans.

Ultimately, though, the great amount of emotional weight Obama brought to the call for sensible gun reform was in many ways the most arresting moment of the evening. The repeated refrain that victims of gun violence “deserve a vote” on gun reforms, combined with the presence of victims in the audience, was reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s 1996 SOTU speech in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, in which he pointed to a federal worker in the audience who had heroically helped victims out of the rubble. Clinton exhorted Republicans: “I challenge all of you in this Chamber: Never, ever shut the federal government down again.”

The historical circumstances are different, but the message to Republicans is the same: Don’t allow ideological radicalism to get in the way of common sense, collective action on behalf of the American people.

In the end, the policy heavy nature of this State of the Union hearkens back to another element of Clinton’s SOTU speeches. Those were premised on the notion that Americans want policy — they want to hear their president spell out, in as much detail as possible, where he wants to take the country. The realities of Congressional opposition to Obama’s agenda remain very real, and it still remains to be seen what Obama and Dems are prepared to give away to secure a deal to bring down the deficit. But Obama laid down a firm set of priorities that he hopes will define his second term. If Obama’s Inaugural rooted the call for a progressive agenda in the country’s past, today’s speech offered a policy-heavy roadmap for a progressive future.