Emboldened by a stronger economy and a series of recent policy initiatives, President Obama on Tuesday night made clear that he is committed to cementing a liberal legacy and aimed to reframe the broader debate on what constitutes American success.
In his sixth State of the Union address, Obama celebrated many of the most ambitious, progressive policies he put in place shortly after taking office and called for more — making an unabashed pitch for expansive government action on the economy, scientific research, infrastructure, education and the environment.
“At this moment — with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, booming energy production — we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth,” Obama said. “It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years and for decades to come.”
A year ago, after a difficult start to his second term, the president articulated a narrower set of goals and vowed to pursue them on his own. Now, despite serious losses in the midterms that gave Republicans full control of Congress, the president called for the kind of political bridge-building that propelled his first presidential bid and the inaugural that began his second term.
Brimming with confidence, the president struck a colloquial tone as he rattled off a series of positive statistics about the country’s recent economic rebound. “This is good news, people,” he reminded hundreds of lawmakers and dignitaries gathered on the House floor.
He also laid claim to the iconic civil rights legacy of the past — tying together the historic march on Selma, Ala.,with the recent protests in Ferguson, Mo. — and arguing that Americans can find common ground on issues of voting rights and criminal justice.
The question facing Obama is whether his final two years in the White House can come close to repeating the record of his first two. He has neither the Democratic majority that ushered through major bills revamping the nation’s fiscal and health-care systems, nor the sky-high poll ratings he had shortly after taking office.
The president is still counting on being able to strike a handful of deals with congressional Republicans, who are now firmly in the majority, and he identified trade as one of the most promising areas where they could find common ground. But Obama emphasized that any efforts to roll back his most significant achievements — including on health care, Wall Street reform, immigration and climate change — would meet fierce resistance.
Obama’s policy victories have come in two distinct periods. In his first two years, he forged landmark legislation with a Congress led by his Democratic Party. For the past year, he has courted confrontation with congressional Republicans, defying them with go-it-alone initiatives on climate change, immigration and foreign policy.
Tuesday’s address reflected the latter approach. Rather than striking a tone of compromise, he proposed $320 billion over the next decade in new taxes targeting wealthy individuals and big financial institutions to fund community-college tuition and paid leave for working parents — an idea that has prompted derision from the Republican majority.
“We will not be limited by what will pass this Congress, because that would be a very boring two years,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said in an interview before the speech.
But the president is not writing off the GOP-controlled House and Senate, aides say. He will need their support if he wants to expand significantly on a domestic policy record that already includes the economic recovery, the Affordable Care Act, the first carbon limits on power plants, regulatory changes for financial institutions and the deferral of possible deportation for millions of illegal immigrants.
“For the policy of trade, he’s going to have a different coalition than with the policy of immigration or than with surface transportation,” said James Thurber, a professor who directs American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.
It remains unclear, however, how easy it will be to muster any of those alliances, which would depend in part on Republican leaders’ willingness to edge aside conservatives as the 2016 presidential contest gets underway.
Another factor beyond the White House’s control is the much-anticipated Supreme Court ruling later this year that could undercut the federal subsidies that help millions of Americans buy plans under the Affordable Care Act.
“The legacy of the president, and the health-care legacy of the president, depends on those nine people in the Supreme Court,” said Jonathan Oberlander, a professor of health policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
For conservative Republicans — such as Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, who described Obama as “someone who has fundamentally changed our country in a very negative way” — the next two years represent a test of how hard they want to try to dismantle the kind of government he has put in place over the past six years.
“The challenge is there is no way to stop the president without a confrontation,” said DeMint, adding that GOP lawmakers are worried that forcing a government shutdown would backfire. “Republicans are just very reticent to do that. But the president’s going to keep bullying and overreaching until there’s a pushback.”
Obama and his aides, by contrast, seem eager for a conflict that will put their differences with the GOP on full display. The president said he is determined to finalize the administration’s proposed rule limiting greenhouse-gas emissions on existing power plants, set aside more public land for conservation and strike a global climate deal when the United Nations convenes negotiations in Paris at the end of the year.
Obama spoke of his environmental goals in sweeping terms — suggesting there’s a chance “the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.” On race relations, by contrast, he talked in more specific terms.
“We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York,” he said. “But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift.”
Foreign policy did not occupy quite as much space in this year’s address, in part because the president is less eager to talk about places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, where Islamist militants continue to battle the United States and its allies. But Obama has accelerated the transfer of prisoners from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in recent months, and he defended his efforts to contain Russian aggression and called for lifting the embargo against Cuba.
While he did not offer substantive policy concessions to Republicans for much of the nearly hour-long speech, Obama concluded by suggesting the two parties could defy conventional wisdom “if we broke out of these tired old patterns.”
“We’ve laid a new foundation,” he declared. “A brighter future is ours to write. Let’s begin this new chapter — together — and let’s start the work right now.”