9:32 PM CST, February 12, 2013
The first State of the Union address of President Barack Obama's second term offered a list of new initiatives if not new ideas. Mr. Obama focused on improving the economic lot of the middle class, reforming the nation's immigration system, addressing climate change and finding a balanced approach to solving our budget problems. Aside from gun control — an issue thrust on the president's agenda by the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre — and a new, ominous nuclear test in North Korea, all of the themes from the speech could have had a home in any of President Obama's previous State of the Union addresses. But given the dysfunction in Washington, the issue at hand was not whether Mr. Obama would set a dramatic new direction for the nation but whether he can finally get a divided Congress to act.
Mr. Obama began the speech by quoting John F. Kennedy's assertion that the president and Congress were "not rivals for power but partners in progress," but he went on to make clear that the blame for failing to make that progress is not evenly shared. The speech was not overtly partisan — Mr. Obama didn't say who these "some people" are in Washington who have the terrible ideas he criticized. But the message was loud and clear: He stands ready to make a deal, provided that Republicans are willing to abandon their tactic of "moving from one manufactured crisis to the next."
The president is entirely correct that it is self-inflicted wounds from the partisan warfare in Washington that have stifled growth and prevented us from focusing on readying our economy for a new era of global competition. "Deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan," Mr. Obama said. In fact, done incorrectly or done too quickly, deficit reduction could send us back to recession — the stalling of the economy in the fourth quarter of last year as the nation careened on the edge of the fiscal cliff is testament to that. The president's insistence on the need to invest in education, research and development, infrastructure and clean energy development is not new, but it remains crucial, and it remains threatened by Republicans' myopic concern about short-term deficits rather than long-term growth.
The president certainly didn't ignore the fiscal issues that have dominated his debates with Congress in recent years — he offered entitlement reform, for example, to further reduce the deficit — but he also made clear that he will not allow them to crowd out everything else.
"What's holding us back?" Mr. Obama asked, of Washington's inability to act on help for the housing market. Expanding pre-kindergarten access to all Americans "is something we should be able to do." Legislation to tackle climate change is something members of both parties have worked on in the past. "Now is our best chance," he said, for tax reform to encourage economic growth. Comprehensive immigration reform? "Now's the time." Raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour? "We should be able to get that done." Long lines at the polls? "We can fix this, and we will." The victims of gun violence "deserve a simple vote."
There is little chance that Republicans will suddenly spring into action because the president urged them to. But in the months since Mr. Obama was re-elected, it has become clear that the GOP is not impervious to public opinion. Immediately after the speech, he planned to leave Washington to highlight his proposals to increase manufacturing, strengthen the middle class and combat gun violence. Rather than preaching the need for a post-partisan Washington, as he did four years ago, Mr. Obama stands ready to mobilize the diverse and growing coalition that put him in office to further his agenda.
A president who has at times seemed detached from the political fray brought with him a new sense of urgency tonight, and he is going to need it. A second-term president has little time before he becomes a lame duck, and the obstructionism Mr. Obama faced in his first term left him with much to do. America re-elected him for a reason, and tonight he reminded Congress what that reason was. The nation wants a government that "looks out for our fellow Americans," just as they look out for their neighbors. It's time that they got it.