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State of the Union: Bright Ideas, Dim Future

Who's that man dozing in the background? Why that would be Speaker of the House John Boehner, who knows his gavel is mightier than the president's pen. From the left, you'll recognize Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama, who seemed to enjoy his time on the podium. AP/Mandel Ngan

Read the full text of the State of the Union here, and watch video of the speech below.

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama said “we turn the page.” But he didn’t say how we are supposed to proceed to the next page or the ones following it.

You can’t fault his ideas: The capital gains tax benefiting the rich should be trimmed, and the wealthy should be denied a chance to squirrel away all their gains for their heirs. He said: “… let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top 1 percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth. We can use that money to help more families pay for childcare and send their kids to college.”

But the Democratic Party and the president as its leader lost at the polls last November. The Republicans now control both houses of Congress as well as a majority of state governments. They favor reducing taxes for the rich. They want to get rid of Obamacare. Their state legislators are working feverishly to restrict and practically eliminate abortion. They want to weaken Social Security.

And a good number of them don’t believe what Obama said about climate change: “if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict and hunger around the globe.”

The climate-change-doubting, anti-tax, anti-health-care Republicans sat stolidly as Obama spoke, forcing themselves to show a bit of enthusiasm only when he reiterated his determination to wipe out the Islamic State.

Their goal, as it has been since he took office, has been to defeat him and the rest of the Democrats. Obama fans loyally hailed the speech as a triumph. But in the real world if you don’t have the votes you’re a loser.

So what was this vote-short president hoping to accomplish with this speech aimed at the centrist middle class, many of whom deserted his party in November, and at the Democratic progressives who have been increasingly disillusioned by him?

Obama’s main theme was “middle-class economics,” a phrase hinting at income redistribution that would end community college tuition and build highways, train lines and public buildings — all projects that would create more jobs than a single Keystone XL pipeline.

His examples — representing the Democratic target voters in 2016 — were Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis. They were hit hard by the Great Recession but bounced back. Student loans helped the wife through community college and into a new career. Ben’s work in construction returned. “It’s amazing,” Rebekah wrote (presumably to the president), “what you can bounce back from when you have to. …”

This is something the Democrats could run on in 2016, no matter whether the presidential candidate is Hillary Clinton or a progressive like Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Sen. Bernie Sanders.

It’s easy to be cynical about a speech like this. I certainly was cynical when I heard Obama say, “As Americans, we cherish our civil liberties,” after having seen him conduct fierce warfare against the news media. And it was hard to take him seriously when he said “our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse.”

But there was good in this speech. I liked the way he didn’t back down in the face of anti-immigration Republicans, pointing out: “surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student and agree that no one benefits when a hard-working mom is taken from her child.”

Nor did he give an inch to Republicans determined to make voting harder for African-Americans and Latinos. Invoking the Selma march for civil rights, he said, “we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to make voting easier for every single American.”

And finally, on the divisive issue of race and police, he said, “We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his own son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift.”

Obama soared at the end, as he often does: “We have laid a new foundation. A brighter future is ours to write.”

But too often in his presidency he has soared without coming down to earth, as if life down here is too messy to deal with. That’s why his greatest accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, was tainted by his inattention to earthly details.

This speech was an agenda-setter for the next two years. Obama said he is through campaigning. But he’s not. He must work at trying to implement his fine words, one page at a time, despite implacable Republican opposition. If he doesn’t do that, his legacy will fall at the hand of the next president, a Republican determined to undo his accomplishments.

Bill Boyarsky
Political Correspondent
Bill Boyarsky is a political correspondent for Truthdig. He is a former lecturer in journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Southern California. Boyarsky was city editor of…
Bill Boyarsky

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