After six years at the helm of a government mired in a deep recession and then a painfully slow recovery, President Obama finally got to deliver Tuesday the State of the Union address he's always wanted to give. Touting the rebounding economy, he laid out an ambitious and unapologetically progressive agenda for generating "rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort."
Unfortunately for Obama, Republicans now control both chambers of Congress, leaving him with even less influence over the legislative agenda than he had before. That means even fewer of his proposals are likely to advance than they have in the last two years; by one count lawmakers approved only seven of the 70 bills outlined in his State of the Union speeches. Yet by arguing that the improving economy should benefit everyone, not just a few, Obama set a goal that the parties claim to share. The unanswered question is whether the president and the GOP are eager enough to attain it that they'll compromise on how to get there.
While the federal government's long-term fiscal problems remain, the deficit has shrunk so much that the seemingly endless fights over the budget have been put on hold. So instead of calling for measures to jump-start a moribund economy, Obama laid out a series of initiatives aimed at advancing U.S. technological prowess and helping lower-income Americans move up the economic ladder — including more tax breaks, subsidized child care, free community college and access to better broadband services. The money for those proposals would come from higher taxes on investments and inherited wealth.
Congressional Republicans say the president is taking a Robin Hood approach to governing. Obama has zeroed in on a real problem, however: Low- and moderate-income Americans have been stuck on a economic treadmill, and Washington should be trying to help them move up.
Republicans talk about middle-class struggles too; where they differ with the president, sharply, is on how to solve them. Aside from his call for better infrastructure and more trade deals, few of the ideas Obama laid out Tuesday had anything in common with the GOP's. Of course, it takes two to compromise, and the bills House Republicans have advanced so far have been nothing but confrontational.
Obama noted the party's shared interests in many of his priorities, and he closed with a lengthy paean to more thoughtful politics. He's been talking about that for some time, to little avail. He has two years left to see if he can bring about that change.