For the first time in his presidency, President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address to a Republican-controlled Congress. Yet he spoke with confidence and ease as he laid out a progressive agenda for the final two years of his presidency.
Noting that the U.S. economy had rebounded from the 2007-2009 recession, the president said, "The shadow of crisis has passed," as he challenged Congress to take up a series of domestic programs targeted at the middle class. "Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?" the president asked. "Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?"
In his address, the president called on Congress to enhance tax credits for education and childcare, to make community college free for most students, and to impose new taxes and fees on very high-income earners and financial institutions. The president also called for more investment in America's infrastructure. At one point he chided the Republicans' push to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. "Let's set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline," the president said. Republicans have repeatedly criticized the president for dragging his feet on Keystone, which they claim will lower gas prices and add thousands of jobs.
The president asked for Republicans to "turn the page," citing recent improvements in the economy, including job growth, falling deficits, and a dramatic slowing of the growth of healthcare costs. He also defended the Affordable Care Act, his recent executive action on immigration, and his move to normalize relations with Cuba for the first time in 50 years. According to several new polls, the president has enjoyed a boost in his approval ratings since his party's defeat in November's midterm elections. "The verdict is clear," the president said. "Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunities works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics does not get in the way."
On foreign policy, the president called on Congress to pass a resolution that would authorize him to use military power against the Islamic State, or ISIL. Many have called on Congress to debate America's role in the fight on terror, but to date it has not done so. The president warned, "The effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed." The president also urged Congress not to pass additional sanctions on Iran before negotiations on its nuclear program are finished.
Throughout his address, President Obama was comfortable and at times cocky. When he noted he has no more campaigns to run, a cheer came from the Republican side of the chamber. The president responded, "I know because I won both of them." This ad-libbed retort angered many Republicans. One noted later, "You can't take politics out of a politician even if he doesn't have any more elections in front of him."
While the president's address was ambitious and progressive, many of his proposals are not likely to go anywhere in a Republican-controlled Congress that is focused on undoing or rolling back the president's Affordable Care Act, immigration executive actions, and investigating Benghazi and the IRS "scandals." Republicans have the numbers, and they are determined to keep President Obama, Democrats and likely presidential frontrunner Secretary Hillary Clinton on the defensive all the way to the 2016 national elections.
After all, you can't take the politics out of a politician.