“And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger.” — President Barack Obama, State of the Union, 2015
By the time the president uttered that line, almost at the end of his State of the Union speech last night, it’s a good bet most Republicans had stopped listening.
That’s because many of the lines that led up to it were direct challenges to GOP orthodoxy on a wide range of issues, from climate change and the Keystone XL pipeline to basic economics to tax policy. If Obama was chastened or humbled by the Republican sweep of 2014, in which the Senate fell to Republican control and the GOP firmed its grip on the House, he didn’t show it on Tuesday.
To be sure, it’s not as if Republicans extended him an olive branch; at their first post-election gathering, House Speaker John Boehner made a point of telling Obama that Republicans would pass the Keystone pipeline, which the president opposes, adding that the House would vote to undo unilateral immigration reforms the president after the election.
But Obama’s speech was filled by jabs, pokes and even outright haymakers aimed at the square jaw of the GOP. It was an address you might expect from a president who had comfortable congressional majorities, rather than a man who’s last remaining option is the veto pen. Here’s a look at some of the highlights:
• “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort? Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing? Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet? Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another — or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?
Hmmm, now who could the president be talking about here? People who side with the idea of a “few … that do spectacularly well”? People who reduce America’s standing because of their fear and overreaction? People who divide up according to ideology? It sounds so familiar somehow!
• In discussing his approach to the economy, Obama made sure to note that his detractors were wrong.
“At every step. we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years.
“So the verdict is clear: Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way. We can’t slow down businesses or put our economy at risk with government shutdowns or fiscal showdowns. We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it. It will earn my veto.”
The president couldn’t have been more clear if he’d just said, “The best answer to Republican economic theories is reality. And the reality is, our ideas have worked, and have made things better for millions. Their rhetoric about free markets (which have never truly existed anywhere in the world at any time in its history) and big government regulation cover an agenda that seeks to aggregate power and profits in the hands of the few at the expense of the many, and this we cannot abide.”
The president drove home the point thus: “That’s what middle-class economics is —the idea that the country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules. We don’t just want everyone to share in America’s success — we want everyone to contribute to our success.”
• More meme busting came when the president called for laws demanding equal pay and a higher minimum wage, which Republicans continue to oppose.
“That’s why this Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work. Really. It’s 2015. It’s time. We still need to make sure employees get the overtime they’ve earned. And to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”
Nice challenge, and one that will not be accepted by a single member of Congress. By the way, the current salary for a rank-and-file congressman or senator is $174,000 per year, with leaders making more.
• Although he didn’t dwell on the topic for nearly long enough, Obama did issue a call for more spending on infrastructure, which some Democrats have been talking about extensively for a long time. Not only are there plenty of examples of bridges, highways, airports, seaports, roads and freeways that need repairs, there are plenty of out-of-work people available to do the labor, and the economic stimulus is obvious. (Here in Nevada, for example, the designated-but-not-funded Interstate 11 project could be one of the best examples of this kind of spending.)
“21st century businesses need 21st century infrastructure — modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest Internet. Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this. So let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let’s pass a bi-partisan infrastructure plan that could create more than thirty times as many jobs per year, and make the country stronger for decades to come.”
Bazinga. Of course, in the Republican response, new Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, made sure to talk up the Keystone XL pipeline to the exclusion of a broader infrastructure-building bill. More’s the pity.
• “Now the truth is, when it comes to issues like infrastructure and basic research, I know there’s bipartisan support in this chamber. Members of both parties have told me so. Where we too often run onto the rocks is how to pay for these investments. As Americans, we don’t mind paying our fair share of taxes, as long as everybody else does, too. But for far too long, lobbyists have rigged the tax code with loopholes that let corporations pay nothing while others pay full freight. They’ve riddled it with giveaways the super-rich don’t need, denying a break to middle-class families who do.”
Here, sadly, the president is wrong. There are plenty of Americans (many in that “super-rich” class) who do mind paying their fair share of taxes. They mind a lot, in fact. That’s why they hire those lobbyists who create those loopholes in the first place — so they can get out of paying taxes.
And that system breeds plenty of anger, too: I recently confronted a particularly churlish individual on Facebook who was gleeful over injuries sustained by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. The source of his anger was Reid’s support for taxes that this … person … had to pay, which he apparently resented. And he’s not alone; there are plenty of people on the right who don’t believe at all in the commonweal, or that taxes are the price we pay for living in civilization. They’d gladly not pay a dime if they were smart enough to figure out how to get out of it, and many do.
• “And let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top 1 percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth. We can use that money to help more families pay for childcare and send their kids to college. We need a tax code that truly helps working Americans trying to get a leg up in the new economy and we can achieve that together.”
And before you quote the old socialist dictum — from each according to his ability to each according to his needs — remember that wealth redistribution has been a part of the American experience for nearly a century, and that the “super-rich” don’t complain when they benefit from it.
• Oh, remember those right wingers who suggested Vladmir Putin was a strong leader in contrast to Obama, who they said was weak? Well, Obama sure does:
“Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, some suggested that Mr. Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters. That’s now how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.”
Then again, Russia still does own Crimea.
(This line in the speech wasn’t the only disparagement of the right-wing punditocracy, as Fox News corespondents noticed at a White House luncheon.)
• Obama tweaked his foes on the right on the issue of climate change most of all, however.
“2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does — 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.
“I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA and [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to national security. We should act like it.”
Game, set and match. And did you catch that bit at the end? If you Republicans don’t believe NASA and NOAA and eggheads at universities, how about warfighters? You like those guys, and even they say climate change is real!
• The president has obviously been listening to talk radio, because he knows exactly what the right is saying about him.
“Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision [of a post-racial, post-partisan United States of America]. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws — of which there are many — but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided and naive, and that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it.
“I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.”
I’ve learned not to bet against cynicism in politics, however. Obama has faced a wall of intransigence and opposition unlike any previous president. Part of it may be his own fault — this is not a glad-handing, deal-making creature of Washington like LBJ or Bill Clinton. But the rest of it cannot be explained simply by partisan differences, the rising tide of reported and unreported money in politics, or the emergence of social media and the Internet as tools of political communication alongside the concomitant decline of traditional news media.
Some of it is the growing trend of hatred in American politics, where disagreements too easily become blood feuds. Some of it is an overreaction to policy differences. Some of it is rooted in racism. But the polarization is real, and greater than I’ve ever seen in more than a quarter-century covering politics.
Oh, and let’s not forget another reason Republicans really dislike Obama: because he wins! They momentarily forgot he’s pretty quick on his feet, too. When he said, “I have no more campaigns to run,” some in the GOP tried to heckle-applause him. He paused for the briefest of moments before replying, deadpan: “I know, ‘cause I won both of them.” It was a beautiful put down, and, according to the Washington Post, it hit the mark.
Yet another honey badger moment in a speech filled with tweaks.