What a difference two years makes.
When Barack Obama strode into the House of Representatives on Feb. 12, 2013, to deliver his State of the Union address, he should have been riding high. After all, he had just breezed past Republican nominee Mitt Romney to win re-election. His party had increased its majority in the Senate and chipped away at the GOP’s lead in the house. And his approval rating had been hovering above 50 percent for 20 straight weeks.
Yet Obama’s address that night was modest, even meek — a reflection of the constraints he faced at the dawn of his second term and the nation’s diminished hopes for his presidency.
In contrast, Obama might have been expected to return to the House chamber Tuesday night for the 2015 State of the Union with his tail between his legs, politically speaking. Last November, his Democrats not only lost ground in the lower chamber of Congress — they ceded control of the Senate to Republicans for the first time since 2006. The GOP has all but sworn to stymie his agenda. And even though they’ve been ticking up in recent days, Obama’s approval ratings during his sixth year in office (January 2014 to January 2015) were still his lowest yet.
But never mind all that, apparently. Because compared with 2013, 2015 was a barnburner — the closest Obama has come in years to the kind of optimism and uplift that characterized his first White House campaign.
“Tonight, we turn the page after a breakthrough year for America,” he declared. “At this moment — with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry and booming energy production — we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on earth.”
So what shifted? Why the reversal? The tale of two speeches — 2013 and 2015 — tells a larger story about the changes that America, its politics and its president have gone through since the beginning of Obama’s second term.
Let’s flash back to 2013 for a moment.
That year, Obama declined to announce any major stimulus packages; rather, he simply recycled a $50 billion infrastructure proposal that had already been stalled in Congress for two years.
Sure, he dismissed the GOP’s obsession with austerity (“we can’t just cut our way to prosperity”) and promised to push for fresh tax hikes on the wealthy (“broad-based economic growth requires a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue”). But he’d also just spent the entire 2012 campaign saying the same things.
On climate change, Obama could have announced that he was, say, tightening environmental measures at federal workplaces. But he decided to deliver a wan threat instead: if Congress won’t act to save the planet, I will go ahead and ... ask my Cabinet for advice.
And then there was gun control. As Yahoo News’ Olivier Knox pointed out at the time, when Obama arrived at “the emotional climax” of his 2013 speech and “victims of gun violence and relatives of those killed or maimed by shootings stood up in the packed House of Representatives chamber,” the president’s “voice rose and he passionately pressed Congress — to vote.”
Not to vote for his proposed gun regulations. Just to vote on them.
Talk about lowering expectations.
Now fast-forward to 2015. Gone was Obama’s timidity and calculation — the sense of a passive president cowed by circumstances beyond his control. In its place was a renewed sense of pride, both in his power to effect change and the legacy he believes he will leave behind.
“It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years, and for decades to come,” he said. “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?”
There were two reasons for Obama’s tonal shift. The first was the economy itself. When the president spoke in 2013, unemployment was still stuck at 7.9 percent — a mere 0.4 percent drop from a year earlier. Economic growth, meanwhile, had slowed markedly at the end of 2012 — to a pathetic -0.1 percent.
And though he struck a more defiant pose in his 2014 State of the Union, making the case for unilateral executive action, Obama was still wary of sounding too triumphalist at a time when the economy had yet to take off.
But today the economy is humming along (by most measures). The jobless rate is a healthy 5.6 percent. GDP grew by 5 percent in the third quarter of 2014 and 4.6 percent in the fourth. Gas prices haven’t been lower since 2009.
Those numbers explain why Obama felt compelled to refer to the economy as “our unfinished task” in 2013 — and why on Tuesday he at last took credit for the recovery, a step he has resisted for years so as not to seem out of touch.
“At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits,” he said Tuesday night. “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. This is good news, people!”
“So the verdict is clear,” he concluded. “Middle-class economics works.”
The second reason for Obama’s triumphant new “Morning in America” tone was electoral. In 2013, the president may have just won re-election. But another election — the 2014 midterms — was still ahead, and vulnerable Democrats facing a GOP-friendly map weren’t particularly eager to tack left on guns, taxes or climate change. He had to consider his party’s political predicament.
But now Obama is no longer responsible for winning elections. Instead, he is free to act with his legacy in mind. The result, on ample display Tuesday night, is a president far more concerned with what he can get done before leaving office — and how he can frame his accomplishments for posterity — than with scoring short-term political points.
So while Obama urged Congress to act on a number of issues — paid family leave; equal pay for women; free, universal community college; investing in infrastructure; closing tax loopholes — he also chose to “focus less on a checklist of proposals and more on the values at stake in the choices before us.”
The president isn’t dumb. He knows that a Republican Congress isn’t going to pass any of the ideas in the budget he plans to send them “in two weeks” — no matter how “practical, not partisan.”
But he also knows that, at least on a night like Tuesday, the bully pulpit is his — and with it comes the power to sell his presidency directly to the American people.
And so he emphasized all the things he is doing without Congress’ cooperation: ending the embargo against Cuba; negotiating a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran; ending the war in Afghanistan; finding common ground with China on climate change.
The message was clear: My party may have lost last November — but I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
“I have no more campaigns to run,” Obama said. “My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I’ve had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol — to do what I believe is best for America.”
And with that, he turned back the clock to the beginning of his political ascent.
“You know, just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America — but a United States of America,” Obama said, referring to his iconic 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. “Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. 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.
“I know how tempting such cynicism may be,” he added. “But I still think the cynics are wrong.”
For Obama, the question now isn’t whether he can maneuver around those cynics. That was 2013. The question now is whether the American people, and the history books, will agree that the cynics have been wrong.