Newly elected second-term presidents traditionally use their first State of the Union address to promote themselves as visionaries with sweeping plans to unite the nation behind an ambitious, common goal.
Not President Barack Obama. The mood of the times and the turmoil of Washington wouldn’t permit such grandeur Tuesday.
Instead of painting himself as a leader crafting a New Deal for the 21st century, Obama came across more as an executive urging a new management strategy. His ambition was aimed less at legacy building and more on simply getting things done. His tone was more somber than lofty. And he gave a speech unlikely to change any minds on Capitol Hill.
Forgoing a charm offensive as misplaced in an age of wariness and skepticism, he reached instead for blunt reality.
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“Together we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger,” he maintained. True to the day’s demeanor, the president’s message quickly turned sober. “But we gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded,” Obama conceded.
Obama’s speech was very much a nod to the day’s strident and stubborn politics. He continues to confront a badly torn Congress. Yes, Republicans sat next to Democrats again Tuesday, but the show of civility was a one night stand.
It’s why his remedy Tuesday was not a go-for-broke plan a la Ronald Reagan’s tax cut or Bill Clinton’s half-trillion dollar deficit reduction package. Nor was it close to the massive stimulus Obama championed four years ago.
Instead there were pleas to stop the partisanship.
“The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next,” Obama said. “The American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another.”
He mentioned some more ambitious ideas, though few specifics. Send him a comprehensive immigration overhaul, Obama said, and “I will sign it right away and America will be better for it.”
Strict gun measures, he said, “deserve a vote.”
His speech was about the economy, though, and the prescriptions were often recycled ideas. There were new calls for taxing “the well-off and the well-connected.” His “bold but achievable goal to slash energy waste through increased efficiency” could have come from the Carter administration playbook. A mortgage refinancing plan had a familiar ring, which Obama acknowledged.
“Democrats and Republicans have supported it before,” he said. “What are we waiting for? Take a vote and send me that bill. Why would we be against that?”
New material often seemed granular for such a big speech. College scorecards? High school redesign? “Modern pipelines to withstand a storm?”
Other initiatives were familiar – increasing the minimum wage, a new emphasis on preschools, tougher vehicle fuel economy standards, encouraging companies to stop sending jobs overseas.
These themes have been around. Bill Clinton in his first second-term State of the Union speech pledged “a national crusade for education standards.” Ronald Reagan in 1985 promised “an historic reform of tax simplification for fairness and growth.”
Clinton didn’t get his education package, and George W. Bush’s 2005 plan to revamp Social Security went nowhere. Reagan did get a tax code rewrite the year after his 1985 speech, but it went forward with strong bipartisan support. And each of the lame ducks found that in the second year of the second term, their administrations were overwhelmed by events spinning out of their control – the Iran-contra scandal, impeachment, Iraq and so on.
So maybe Obama is being practical, going with the flow of the day. Maybe, the theory goes, if he gets a little of this and a little of that, and the jobless rate trickles below 7 percent, the Tuesday speech will be a new template for presidential rallying cries.
Tradition, though, says Americans want the presidents they just invested in with their votes to seize history, think big thoughts and inspire them.
They didn’t see that Tuesday night.
Obama’s problems aren’t just with Republicans. Democrats, who tend to be more liberal, have been critical of his willingness to compromise.
Obama joked about the relationship at last week’s House Democratic retreat. “There will be times when you guys are mad at me and I’ll occasionally read about it,” he said.
Democrats are well aware that in the sixth year of a presidency, the incumbent White House party often loses seats as voters tire of the old order.
Obama knows that the tension will persist unless he can grow his mandate, and that prospect remains uncertain. His latest Gallup Poll approval rating, taken Saturday through Monday, was 52 percent, roughly the same as his Election Day popular vote.
Job approval tends to track the economy. Last month, 157,000 jobs were added, but economists estimate for the jobless rate to drop significantly, job growth has to exceed at least 200,000 per month.
Even if he overcomes all the political obstacles, Obama is handcuffed by fiscal restraint. He can’t spend his way out of the economic mess. For the first time in his presidency, the budget deficit is expected to drop under $1 trillion this year, but it is still estimated to wind up a whopping $845 billion
That’s why Obama had to lace his speech with sober reminders: “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”