News & Politics

Obama's State of the Union Plays to His Base -- But Not Everything Was Worth Cheering

In his State of the Union message, Obama succeeded in painting the GOP as obstructionist, and came down hard on the banks.

Photo Credit: White House photo, Pete Souza

In the final State of the Union message President Barack Obama will deliver this term, he came out swinging against the obstructionism of Republicans in Congress, and spoke to the growing gap between America's rich and poor.

With a delivery that often sounded like he was imploring America to believe in itself again, Obama gave an address that may not have been his most inspirational, but got the job done. He laid out a strong case for his programs and his adminstration's efforts to revive the economy, and made the GOP look small and petty at the expense of everyday people. And in a moving moment just before he ascended the podium, the president embraced Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who will resign her seat on Wednesday in order to focus on her recovery from the gunshot to the head she suffered at last year's rampage by Jared Loughner.

After opening his remarks with plaudits for the military -- and a reminder of his administration's killing of Osama bin Laden -- Obama launched into a speech that addressed concerns expressed by progressives and refuted claims made by Republicans.

"We've come too far to turn back now," Obama said. "I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place."

Hearing the Base

The president, it seems, has heard the hew and cry from his base, coming out strong against the banks, and laying the economic devastation he inherited at the feet of his predecessor.

"In 2008, the house of cards collapsed..." Obama said. "Banks had made huge bets and bonuses with other people's money.  Regulators had looked the other way, or didn't have the authority to stop the bad behavior. It was wrong.  It was irresponsible.  And it plunged our economy into a crisis that put millions out of work, saddled us with more debt, and left innocent, hard-working Americans holding the bag."

Following a shout-out to Richard Cordray, his recess-appointed Consumer Financial Protection Board chief, the president announced the creation of a new entity in the Justice Department, the Financial Crimes Unit, "to crack down on large-scale fraud and protect people's investments."

In fact, because of the gridlock in Congress, Obama laid out several initiatives he could create within the executive branch; unfortunately, without congressional funding, the jobs program he asked for is unlikely to be among them. Neither is the DREAM Act, despite the president's call to revive the bill that would allow a path to citizenship for people born abroad but raised in the U.S. The president also called on Congress to "stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July."

He did, however, promise a bit of an end-run around Congress on the question of clean energy, through an executive branch initiative to be executed through the Navy on public lands.

Warren Buffett's Secretary in the House

Obama also spoke to the unfairness of the tax code, but coupled his criticism with concerns about the national debt. Among the guests who sat with First Lady Michelle Obama in her box was Debbie Bosanek, secretary to Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, who has immortalized her for paying a much higher tax rate than he does.

"Right now, we're poised to spend nearly $1 trillion more on what was supposed to be a temporary tax break for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans," Obama said. "Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else -- like education and medical research; a strong military and care for our veterans? Because if we're serious about paying down our debt, we can't do both."

Obama also sought to put a dent in the Republican narrative about him as a regulation-happy, job-thwarting chief executive by noting that his administration has issued fewer new regulations than did predecessor George W. Bush at the same point in his presidency, and noted that since he took office, the private sector has added 22 million new jobs.

More controversial in progressive circles will be the president's urging of a full-tilt effort to exploit the nation's natural gas resources, as well as education reform measures that call for the elimination of tenure for public school teachers.

Progressives might not take heart with the president's exhortation that the nation use the military as its model for national unity, which he used to bookend his speech, but even there, he used the image of the military to state the breadth of America's diversity in a call for unity -- one that also named several major constituencies in the Democratic coalition.

"When you put on that uniform," he said, "it doesn't matter if you're black or white; Asian or Latino; conservative or liberal; rich or poor; gay or straight. When you're marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you're in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one Nation, leaving no one behind." (Among the first lady's guests at the speech were two out lesbians: Lorelei Kilker, who won a workplace gender discrimination settlement due to an investigation by the administration, and Air Force Col. Ginger Wallace, the first LGBT person to have a same-sex partner participate in a "pinning on" ceremony. More here from Chris Johnson of the Washington Blade.)

Republicans Bearish on America

It is customary for any president, in delivering this annual speech to a joint session of Congress, to say, somewhere near the top, "the state of our union is strong." Obama held a variation of that line until the end, starting instead with the more tentative, "the state of our union is getting stronger." However, when compared with the GOP response, delivered by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, that was outright cheerleading. Daniels called the state of the union "grave." Not even Herman Cain (you thought he was gone?) went that far in his Tea Party Express response to the state of the union. (Cain simply said the state of the union was "not good.")

Because the Republican Party's field of presidential contenders features a handful of flawed candidates and no clear frontrunner, Daniels' star turn as the GOP responder drew special attention. Despite the virtual impossibility of such a solution, buzz still abounds about somebody else getting into the race, and some highly placed Republicans would like Daniels to be the one.

Daniels offered at flat and dour message, painting America as a nation about to go the way of Greece, which is bankrupt. He opened by making the case that he respected the presidency, and exhorted fellow Republicans to do the same, and offered Obama kudos for "his aggressive pursuit of the murderers of 9/11."

"I personally would add to that list admiration for the strong family commitment that he and the first lady have displayed to a nation sorely needing such examples," Daniels said.

But he then went on to characterize the unemployment picture as one in which "one in five men of prime working age...did not go to work today." This he attributed to the president's policy of what he called "trickle-down government," a curious spin on the old Reaganite saw of "trickle-down economics," the disproven theory that when the rich get richer, the increase trickles down to all.

"We do not accept that ours will ever be a nation of haves and have nots," Daniels said, despite the fact that the top two percent own 40 percent of America's wealth. "We must always be a nation of haves and soon-to-haves," he said.

Despite the lower level of new regulation overseen by the Obama administration, Daniels sought to give the opposite impression, calling the government under Obama "big and bossy."

In a catch-all condemnation of regulations of any sort, Daniels sought to paint Obama as an elitist who wishes to control the lives of regular people. "Left to ourselves, we might pick the wrong health insurance, the wrong mortgage, the wrong school for our kids," he said, sarcastically. "Why, unless they stop us, we might pick the wrong lightbulb!"

Actually, the regulation mandating the elimination of the 100-watt incandescent lightbulb -- a pet obsession of the Tea Party -- was signed into law by George W. Bush. But that's politics for ya.

 

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. She also writes for the AFL-CIO Now blog. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/addiestan