Commentary: A President Who’s Maintained His Swagger

In his State of the Union address, President Obama made clear his determination to make important changes – with or without the support of Congress.

Posted: 01/28/2014 11:01 PM EST

President Obama’s fifth State of the Union address was a nothing short of a powerful declaration in support of boosting economic opportunities for working Americans who have not yet begun to feel the impact of the nation’s economic recovery.

More than anything, though, there was a swagger to the president’s message, telling a largely hostile Republican-led House of Representatives that there were a number of things he was determined to accomplish with or without their cooperation.

“America does not stand still — and neither will I,” the president said, speaking of the need to strengthen the financial footing of America’s middle class. “So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

It was a theme that would come up time and time again in the speech. Nowhere was it more notable than with the president’s pledge, previewed by the White House hours before the speech, to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contract workers.

At the same time, he called upon the nation’s businesses to follow that lead.

“This will help families,” Obama said. “It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It doesn’t involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise.”

Much has been made by pundits about the fact that this State of the Union message comes at the onset of a crucial midterm election year and that Obama’s major task is to start the process of energizing the political base that will enable the Senate to remain in Democratic control.

That undoubtedly was something of an influence. But it was not crass political posturing. Obama highlighted the themes that gained him the White House in the first place and had millions of Americans support him at the ballot box in two elections. In his speech, with its uplifting tone, he was the vigorous champion of the urgency to have women’s wages catch up to the level of that of men. He spoke of the need to assure that programs are created to “help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.“ He voiced passionate support again for extending the unemployment benefits that expired a month ago.

He also played the role as the resounding defender of the Affordable Care Act.

“If you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, and increase choice — tell America what you’d do differently,” the president chided Republicans. “But let’s not have another forty-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans,” he said to wild Democratic cheers.

And the days leading up to the speech were filled with television news hosts highlighting the president’s stubbornly beleaguered standing in the polls, just as unemployment is at its lowest level since Obama was elected, a time when the housing market is showing signs of rebounding and when the manufacturing sector is adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s.

Clearly, the Obama presidency is in a decidedly different chapter than it was in the heady days of his first State of the Union address. The president has met with historic obstructionism and a Republican led House that is opposed to any initiative with which the president is associated.

Still, the president made clear that he remained energetically committed to the very policies that catapulted him into office five years ago. He told Americans in a compelling way that he remained the passionate defender of working people and that he maintained the commitment — no matter the polling results — to achievement many of his long-term goals.


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Follow Jonathan Hicks on Twitter: @HicksJonathan

(Photo: AP Photo/Larry Downing, Pool)

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