Last Tuesday, President Barack Obama delivered the State of the Union address to members of Congress and other dignitaries. This was Obama’s third State of the Union address since taking office, a significant speech for a first-term president seeking re-election. He used his address as a prelude to what is shaping up to be a contentious election year, taking the opportunity to emphasize his successes as President and delineate some clear policy differences between the Republican candidates and himself.
The phrase “State of the Union” entered the political lexicon with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, but a presidential report detailing the current state of affairs has been integral to the American political process since George Washington. Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address covered a broad range of topics, from the success of drone missions in the Middle East to the need for financial accountability on Wall Street. While the speech generates a lot of attention every year, this year’s speech was particularly crucial to the Obama administration.
This year, President Obama will go up for re-election, facing a Republican Party that has already begun to drum up a conservative support base to oust him from office in November. With the Republican candidates accusing the current administration of stagnating the economy and not taking a hard enough line on foreign affairs, Obama’s speech offered a direct response to such criticisms.
In terms of the economy, Obama sought to remind Americans of the economic improvements which have occurred since he took office. He stated: “In the last twenty-two months, businesses have created more than three million jobs.” In a particularly pointed response to some of his critics, he fought back against the Republican adage of taxation as class warfare. “We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it.” What I think was most important to gain from his discussion of the economy was his pledge to hold the financial sector accountable and bridge the widening divide between Main Street and Wall Street. It was particularly important considering his administration has been widely criticized for its decision to use taxpayer’s money to bail out struggling financial institutions after the 2008 recession. He referred to the bailout as a “deficit in trust.”
Though many of Obama’s earlier speeches have focused on reaffirming the strength of the American middle class, this year’s State of the Union seemed to target specifically lower-middle class Americans, an audience who has suffered from layoffs, foreclosure, and rising inflation since the recession. In an attempt to appeal to this group, he presented several real examples of working individuals who had regained employment through government programs this past year. Ultimately, it is those who have suffered most from the recession that present the biggest challenge to Obama’s re-election.
Obama spent a short amount of time dealing with foreign policy, as the economy remained the focus of much of his speech. His main talking points were tightening up of trade policy with China, the opening up of new foreign markets for American-manufactured goods, and the success of various drone missions in the Middle East. Most importantly was his emphasis on the power of American diplomacy to ensure international support for placing sanctions on Iran. The Republican candidates have criticized Obama for being soft on security issues, a criticism that Obama surely hoped to disprove. “From Pakistan to Yemen, the al-Qaeda operatives who remain are scrambling, knowing that they can’t escape the reach of the United States of America.” He emphasized the improvement of American security and the expanding trade opportunities abroad.
While I may not be the most patriotic of Americans, something about watching the State of the Union address made even me feel a bit giddy inside. And that’s exactly how this speech was intended, as an affirmation that, thanks to Obama’s administration, the United States is on the road to recovery and the American future is looking brighter than ever. This year’s State of the Union was an exhibition of Obama’s uncanny ability to walk a fine line between pragmatism and idealism in his rhetoric. I think that much of Obama’s success comes from his ability to present ideas that are undeniably idealistic in a way that does not come off as political grandstanding. In true Obama form, the State of the Union ultimately succeeded in giving a sense of hope to those dissatisfied with the current order of things. Whether or not that hope materializes into something more concrete this year is still to be seen.