Stymied by dysfunction in a Congress led by a Republican House majority which shut down the government and continually threatens to default on our debt, President Obama conveyed understandable frustration with the logjam in Washington but demonstrated an enthusiasm for rising above that gridlock to enact good public policy on his own. Utilizing the rhetorical loftiness, inspirational oratory, and empathetic earnestness that made him appealing as a candidate in 2008 and 2012, the President demonstrated the confident and concerned leadership for working people that public opinion polling indicates Americans are seeking in him. Further, Obama's robust defense of the ability of government to work for the interests of working families, instead of standing in their way with pointless exercises such as voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, was a welcomed embrace of progressivism that indicates an understanding from the White House that this year is the last best chance for the President to leave behind a firmly activist legacy.
It's true that Obama has already achieved a tremendous deal in his first several years in office. He shed light on some of those accomplishments in his address, including, most notably, the patient protections and expansion of health insurance in Obamacare. However, he still needs to do more to both protect the accomplishments of the first term while also paving the path for a truly sustained economic recovery that lifts the economic well-being of working class and middle class families. After all, the latter is arguably the reason why Barack Obama was elected president in the first place, defeating John McCain amid a financial crisis that threatened to plunge the country into a second depression. The administration is seemingly aware of this fact as Obama told The New Yorker's David Remnick that he wanted to be judged on whether he increased ladders of opportunity for the middle class. Political pundits lamented though that President Obama sounded defeated, tired, and downtrodden in Remnick's piece about the prospects of his final years. If anything, tonight's address should have put those doubts to rest.
The President appeared keenly aware that this moment is the perfect chance to seize the opportunity to be the happy warrior for American working families that someone like Hubert H. Humphrey was. The State of the Union address was a spirited manifesto of progressive principles such as lessening income inequality, protecting voting rights, expanding educational opportunities, and reforming the immigration system. Progressives have yearned for Obama to focus on these issues and in emphasizing these subjects tonight, the President implicitly nodded to his base that he wants to make their signature issues the core of his legacy. On policy and political grounds, Obama is on firm footing here. Despite President Obama's lackluster job approval rating, the policies he pushed during his address are enormously popular thus increasing the likelihood that members of Congress facing reelection this year will support them. In terms of the impact of these policies on the broader economy, scores of economists have recently come out for increasing the minimum wage, a broad range of research indicates immigration reform would boost job creation while reducing the deficit, and law enforcement, education reform advocates, business leaders, and other groups have all come together to support universal pre-K as a necessary downpayment for future economic productivity. In order for Obama to both regain his credibility with the public as an effective champion for working people and leave behind a legacy of popular progressive activism, it was crucial that he make a confident case for these policies.
Further, reestablishing trust with the public that Obama can be a strong leader who cares about middle class people and seeking to establish a productive, progressive legacy -- both of which are fronts on which voters have been losing faith in the president -- are goals that the President did his best to achieve tonight in one key way: immediate executive action. On many levels, executive actions like the ones he outlined tonight are a wise route to take. Recent public opinion polling showed 52 percent support for taking executive action if Congress is unproductive, the President had been losing points on showing strong leadership, the areas in which the White House announced new executive action were ones in which it was increasingly clear Congress was unwilling to take action, and, unlike what some conventional wisdom demonstrates, the executive actions might actually ratchet up pressure on Congress to take legislative action on those issues because the President will seem productive vs. a lackluster legislature. As such, President Obama took the initiative on several issues on his own, most notably raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour; the broader effort to raise the minimum wage for all Americans to that level is extremely popular, and economically effective according to recent studies of the Economic Policy Institute, so Obama is on solid ground here. Ultimately, that's where he was throughout the night, demonstrating the optimistic, energetic, and aggressive leadership that the public wants and needs. Now is not the time for timidity and the President seems to agree.