The first two-thirds of the speech was filled with aspirational proposals to help build up what the president termed “middle-class economics,” couched in words that made it sound as if only a callous fool could oppose them. In laying claim to a restored economy, Obama implicitly chastised the Republican senators and representatives there in the House chamber who had relentlessly opposed his policies.
“We believed that sensible regulations could prevent another [economic] crisis, shield families from ruin, and encourage fair competition,” Obama said, reviewing the actions taken by his administration during his six years in office. “Today, we have new tools to stop taxpayer-funded bailouts, and a new consumer watchdog to protect us from predatory lending and abusive credit card practices. And in the past year alone, about 10 million uninsured Americans finally gained the security of health coverage."
“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.”
Then, he warned the Republicans against trying to roll back the progress he believes the country has made, saying, “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, it will earn my veto.”
Throughout the speech -- other than when Obama was lauding members of the military -- the Republicans sat on their hands, not offering applause for even his most noncontroversial ideas. Had the president sung the praises of moms and apple pie, they still would not have clapped for him, suspecting that the next sentence would lead to a funding scheme to give those moms better daycare and to provide apple pie to community college students. And they were right about that. Obama was laying traps at every turn of phrase.
This new, unleashed Obama is the president Democrats have been waiting for -- bursting with progressive proposals and boldly facing down the opposition. The drubbing his party took in the midterm elections has strangely invigorated him, and the fact he never has to run for office again has given him license to show some attitude.
The last section of the speech veered toward conciliation, but even the heartfelt, personal tone only softened a chastening message.
“So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes,” Obama said. “I’ve served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn’t what you signed up for -- arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision.
“Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different."
Obama went on for significant length describing how politics could be more noble and productive if the partisans of red and blue America could, for once, work for the good of the United States of America. This part of the State of the Union address was like something taken from a Hollywood script. The cinematic president in the climactic scene makes a dramatic, patriotic appeal to his intransigent opponents. He calls on the better angels of their nature and they all fall in line behind him.
That’s how it works in the movies. In the real Washington, though, even a strong speech such as the one Obama delivered was not ever going to change Republican hearts and minds. In every remark by every Republican, both before and after the speech, it was abundantly clear that there are only two words they want to hear from the president: “I surrender.”