Obama's Ambitious, Unlikely State of the Union Speech

President Barack Obama acknowledges applause before delivering his annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 12, 2013 in Washington Photograph by Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

President Obama’s State of the Union speech was billed as an address that would focus heavily on jobs and the economy, while presenting Congress with an ultimatum: take action to improve the economy or I will, through executive actions. But that’s not how the speech played out. Its emotional core was Obama’s stirring peroration on gun violence that came toward the end. And its signature characteristic wasn’t threats or arm-twisting, but Obama’s repeatedly imploring Congress to vote on the whole array of issues he laid out: gun legislation, climate legislation, alternatives to the sequester, universal preschool, and on and on — it was a long list.

Obama’s Jan. 21st inaugural address was criticized by Republicans and some media commentators for its strident, often confrontational tone and unapologetic embrace of a liberal agenda. Right off the top on Tuesday night, Obama seemed to acknowledge this critique by agreeing that the deficit must be reduced (a Republican priority) and pointedly offering concessions that make liberals nervous, such as reforming Medicare. “On Medicare, I’m prepared to enact reforms that will achieve the same amount of health care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission,” he said.

His other main point of business was heading off the automatic sequestration cuts that could shave a half point of growth from the economy if allowed to kick in two weeks from now. Once again, Obama strained to appear reasonable: “Let’s set party interests aside, and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future.”

But most of Obama’s speech was given over to a Clinton-style laundry list of policy proposals — many of which had a distinctly liberal flair:

–An increase in the minimum wage to $9 an hour.

–A cap-and-trade program to limit carbon emissions.

–New infrastructure spending of the sort Democrats have been pushing for years.

–College-affordability measures.

What many of these policies share in common is that they’re designed to help the minorities, immigrants, young people, and suburban women who made up Obama’s electoral coalition. Partly as a result, they’re also unlikely to get very far in Congress. As Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, tweeted: “This isn’t just a laundry list. It’s a wish list. And most wishes won’t come true.”

Indeed, for all its unexpected ambition, this wasn’t a speech that’s likely to drive the legislative agenda in Congress. (There’s a reason Obama’s tone was imploring, rather than commanding.) But presidential speeches rarely do. Instead, Obama echoed and amplified the liberal worldview that he laid out on Jan. 21st. He set benchmarks and goals. He came across as reasonable and committed to the greater good.

He’s expected to spend much of the next six weeks on the road pushing his ideas. Tonight’s speech was part of a long-term effort to shift public opinion in his direction — which, in the end, is the only way to move Congress.

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