President Obama’s second inaugural address was widely perceived as a throwing down of the gauntlet in how it framed his progressive faith in government and challenged his Republican political opponents in any number of ways.
Given that, expect to see more glove-throwing Tuesday as the president delivers the first State of the Union speech of his second term.
With no more presidential elections to face, Obama seems to be taking advantage of that newfound freedom to speak more forcefully on his second-term agenda items, like immigration overhaul, gun control and climate change, than he generally did during his first term.
So expect to see that increased forcefulness on display during his speech to a joint session of Congress.
Obama himself has acknowledged that he has decided to be unapologetic about his priorities. In remarks he made to House Democrats last week at their retreat, he said:
“Even as I think it’s important to be humbled by the privilege of this office and the privilege of serving in the United States Congress, even as it’s important not to read too much into any particular political victory — because this country is big, it is diverse, it is contentious, and we don’t have a monopoly on wisdom, and we need to remember that — despite all those things, I think it’s also important for us to feel confident and bold about the values we care about and what we stand for.
“And I tried to do that in my inauguration speech, and I’m hoping that we all do that over the next four years.”
“His sense of self-confidence is palpable since he was re-elected,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, in an interview. “And the American people like that,” said Waldman, who was a speechwriter in former President Bill Clinton’s White House. “They want a happy warrior. They want to see their president in the fight with a smile.”
So, on what issues will Obama likely assert his “confident and bold” vision for the nation? Here are four.
1) The Economy
The economy remains the most important issue to voters, judging by what they tell pollsters.
With the economy facing an immediate threat from the very real possibility of sharp cuts in federal spending starting March 1 from what’s known in Washington as sequestration, Obama will no doubt again encourage lawmakers to reach an agreement before any more damage is done. Just the threat of the sequester is thought to have contributed to the economy shrinking in the fourth quarter of 2012.
Obama has advocated that the sequester be replaced by a package of spending cuts and tax reforms that would raise more revenue in part by closing tax loopholes, especially those benefiting taxpayers at the top of the income ladder. Republicans have said any proposals that include new revenue are dead on arrival.
Expect Obama to insist, as he has in the past, that it’s essential that any approach to fiscal responsibility be “balanced,” with spending cuts and new revenue both contributing to cutting deficits. And expect him to indicate that he will give no ground on this. Spending cuts alone, he has said, will lead to reductions in the kinds of federal spending on education and research that would eventually limit economic growth.
Obama is sure to frame the issue not just in fairness terms but also as essential to faster economic growth. As he told House Democrats last week:
“Over the next four years, as I work with this caucus and every caucus, the question I will ask myself on every item, every issue is, ‘Is this helping to make sure that everybody has got a fair shot and everybody is doing their fair share, and everybody is playing by the same rules?’ Because I believe that is a growth agenda — not just an equity agenda, not just a fairness agenda — that is a growth agenda. That is when we have grown fastest.
“And that means that what you’ll hear from me next week, I’m going to be talking about making sure that we’re focused on job creation here in the United States of America.”
Obama promised during his re-election campaign to make overhaul of the nation’s Immigration laws a second-term priority. He has expressed support for a recently unveiled bipartisan Senate package of principles that would provide a path to legalization for many undocumented immigrants now in the country.
The Republican leadership’s choice of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to present the GOP response may indicate that they expect immigration to be a key part of the president’s speech, and they want to be a party to framing the debate before the American people. Rubio, a Cuban-American, was among the bipartisan group of senators who unveiled the recent immigration proposal. Thus, he puts an immigration-friendly face on a party that has shown weakness in that area.
3) Gun Control
After the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre, Obama made increased gun control a priority. At the top of the list is his push for universal background checks, regardless of whether weapons are bought from retailers — which now must do checks — or at gun shows, where buyers need not be checked. Other priorities are a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban and a prohibition on high-capacity gun magazines that can hold anywhere from 20 rounds to 100 rounds.
“The majority of responsible gun owners recognize we cannot have a situation in which 20 more of our children, or 100 more of our children, or 1,000 more of our children are shot and killed in a senseless fashion, and that there are some common-sense steps that we can take and build a consensus around,” Obama told the House Democrats. “And we cannot shy away from taking those steps.”
4) Climate Change
Obama’s mention of global warming in his second inaugural was viewed as significant by many observers. It was a first-term priority that had gotten sidetracked by other major agenda items, such as the battle to pass the Affordable Care Act.
With Republicans now controlling the House, and the specter of Republican filibusters in a Senate run by Democrats, it’s unlikely Obama could get through Congress legislation that would significantly reduce U.S. carbon emissions.
But in his inauguration, Obama couched the issue in terms of religious faith and generational equity. Thus, even though he doesn’t appear to have the votes in Congress, he will have the bully pulpit to speak on an issue that could come to dwarf even the U.S. economy and jobs in terms of its importance to the average American.
Which leads to an important point. A State of the Union address isn’t necessarily a laundry list of what is legislatively doable. It also has been used by presidents to describe a vision.
“It’s a mistake in writing one of these speeches to think about what could only pass the Congress in the next six months,” Waldman said. “The purpose really is to lay out an agenda for the country and not just a legislative agenda.”
For his part, Waldman hopes Obama follows up on the reference the president made in his second inauguration speech to the nation’s voting system, which finds so many Americans “forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.”
“This would be a great time for him to talk at greater length about that, about what he thinks ought to happen,” said Waldman of the Brennan Center, for which voting rights is a key issue for research and advocacy.
We’ll know Tuesday evening whether the president decided to include the voting-rights issue, too.
But consider this: Obama knows that he is probably at the height of his second-term power right now, and with each passing month the shadow of lame-duckness looms larger over his presidency.
By the time of his 2014 State of the Union, more attention may be on congressional midterm elections than on the president’s agenda.