Obama and the Rubble

Evan Soltas is a contributor to Bloomberg View.
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President Barack Obama's State of the Union address posed its most interesting question in the first few moments: Can his administration break free of the challenges of recession? Or will it be weighed down for another four years?

"We have cleared away the rubble of crisis," the president said. Yet in the policy landscape he went on to describe, plenty of rubble remained. The Obama agenda, if this speech is any guide, continues to be defined by fiscal issues and deficit reduction.

That created a sharp contrast with his second inaugural address, which presented a more expansively liberal program, made for a post-crisis, post-conflict era. The State of the Union address is supposed to be the more practical expression of the inaugural vision -- but the discontinuity between the two speeches, just three weeks apart, was striking.

The inaugural's discussion of climate change, its invocation of marriage equality as the new civil rights issue and its vigorous defense of federal social-insurance programs all thrilled liberals. The themes reappeared last night, but the emphases were very different.

The president didn't really offer a new agenda. He concentrated on deficit reduction. He talked about reforming entitlement programs. He talked about tax reform. He talked about mortgage refinancing, a policy aimed to speed the recovery in the housing market. All these are legacy issues -- carried-over fights. On new ideas he might make his own, he offered few details. Immigration reform was the clearest example: "We know what needs to be done," Obama said. "Now let's get this done."

I'd say there were three main exceptions -- issues not complicated by rubble. They were energy policy, gun control and the minimum wage.

Obama endorsed a "market-based solution" to climate change and pledged further executive action on environmental regulations. He forcefully advocated the "overwhelming judgment of science" on global warming. On gun control, he reframed the debate as a moral commitment to gun safety. Here Obama's speech came to its emotional climax, embracing the victims who had come to hear his speech, and summoning all the emotional muscle of the inaugural.

Even more than climate change and gun control, though, it was Obama's call to make the minimum wage a "living wage" that best demonstrated the potential of his second term. One can contest the policy merits of a minimum-wage increase, but the idea is at least uncompromisingly liberal.

Not much else in the speech was.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Evan Soltas at esoltas@gmail.com