In last night’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama not only laid out the agenda for his second term, he started to show his true colors. Mark Zachary Taylor, assistant professor of political economy, explains why Obama may be bolder in the days ahead.
I think we began seeing more of the "true" Obama emerge in the State of the Union. He arrived in office in 2009 with a host of major problems to deal with and not much of a personal policy agenda. But with the Great Recession fading, the wars in the Middle East winding down and health care cooling off, Obama is now free to advance his own policy agenda, which he has had four years to consider.
While Obama remains to the right of many in his party and pragmatic in his willingness to compromise, he has definitely taken a fighting step away from the center. Former President Bill Clinton was heralded for bringing a new, smarter Democratic vision as President. Obama is now picking up this torch and advancing it. I think his second administration is going to be wiser, less compromising and more original than his first.
In some areas of his address, Obama showed himself more solidly a Democrat than he’s been before. During his first term, Obama continued a lot of Bush policies and put forward many Republican policies from the 1980s and 1990s. He also avoided a lot of core Democratic issues, such as labor, gay rights and climate change. However, this speech dove in deep on core issues of the Democratic Party. And he was more forceful and audacious than usual with his pep rally around a gun control vote and his warnings about executive action on climate change.
Aspects of Obama’s speech were still decidedly centrist, such as his endorsement of free trade negotiations between the U.S. and the European Union. Yet in response, the Republicans often reacted in a blindly partisan fashion. For example, Republicans sat stern and quiet during Obama’s call for pre-K education, which is popular in the staunchly Republican state of Georgia, and universal background checks, which were strongly backed by the NRA and many Republicans just a generation ago. Observers argue that there is little Obama can say that Republicans won't oppose just because he supports it. (Of course, former President George W. Bush suffered similar treatment at the hands of Democrats.)
Overall, President Obama’s address was less rhetorical and more policy-oriented than the average State of the Union. It was basically a pragmatic list of national problems and mostly practical solutions. We still did not get much clarity on precisely what spending cuts he'd make, although one could argue that this is Congress' move to make. Also, Obama claimed that none of his proposals would raise the debt, but sensible listeners will want details on the fiscal aspects.
Meanwhile, much of the Republican response, made by Sen. Marco Rubio and others, has been: lower taxes, less government. This platitude was fine for the 1970s and 1980s, but in 2013 it's too vague and disconnected from the facts and their own recent history. The Republicans are not countering Obama's specific ideas and policies with their own. They are often perceived as the party of "No!"
Republicans also continue to ignore the increasingly white, wealthy and male make-up and image of their party. Yes, a 15-minute speech by middle-class Cuban-American Rubio is nice symbolism. But the Republicans must take far more substantial action to change their reputation of intolerance on race, gender, religion and sexual orientation.
Combine these problems with last night’s independent Tea Party response, and it reveals a Republican Party that continues to be fragmented, disorganized and in fundamental disagreement about what they stand for as a whole. They are not yet confronting their basic differences and vagueness over policy and philosophy. The Republicans need to get their intellectual and policy fundamentals revised, re-energized and consistent if they want to retake national power. They need to publicly repudiate what has failed or is obsolete; they need to reconcile their policy and philosophy with each other, and with their recent past. Though, to be frank, unless they suffer major reversals in elections, they may (or may not need) to change.
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