Where has this Obama been hiding? Six takes on the State of the Union

January 21, 2015
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 20, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Reuters asked Opinion contributors to comment on President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Here is what they said:

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform

Barack Obama has been president of the United States for six years. He spent one full hour on Tuesday telling the country what he says he wants to do in the next two years. This was a list of things he hasn’t done in the last six. Why do we think he cares now?

He demanded higher taxes on the U.S. public — beginning with the 12 million middle-class Americans who try to save for their children’s education through 529 college savings accounts. If he actually cared about middle-class Americans, Obama would first repeal the seven taxes on the middle class that he imposed through Obamacare.

 

Bill Schneider, professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.

President Barack Obama did not address Congress like a defeated man — even though, technically, that is what he is.

Republicans complained that the president shrugged off the message of the midterm election. Mitt Romney wrote on Facebook, “He ignores the fact that the country has elected a Congress that favors smaller government and lower taxes.”

“Tonight,” Obama said, “we turn the page.” He spoke like a liberated man, full of plans and ambitions. What was he liberated from? Politics.

“I have no more campaigns to run, the president said — drawing cheers from Republicans. To which he had a great comeback: “I know cause I won both of them!”

His message echoed a deeply held American belief — that politics is the enemy of problem-solving.

The president asked, “Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another — or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled American forward?” Obama was daring Republicans to attack him.

Obama acknowledged his own failure to bring the country together. But he refused to give in to cynicism. “I still believe that together, we can do great things,” he said, “even when the odds are long.”

They are certainly long for him. His opponents now control of both houses of Congress and most states.

U.S. President Barack Obama visits with Rebekah Erler at Matt's Bar in Minneapolis

Obama visits with Rebekah Erler after receiving a letter from her explaining what it is like living in her shoes, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 26, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing

The message of his address was captured by one of his guests in the balcony, Rebekah Erler of Minneapolis. Her family went through hardship during the Great Recession. She wrote the president how they had suffered and sacrificed — and ultimately recovered. “It is amazing,” she wrote, “what you can bounce back from when you have to.”

Obama was so fond of the line, he quoted it twice. Erler was talking about her family. The president used it as a metaphor for the country’s recovery. But it was also a metaphor for himself: “It is amazing what you can bounce back from when you have to.”

 

David Axe, national security editor at Medium.com

President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to celebrate long-evolving military policies. He touted Washington’s shift away from large-scale occupations like those his predecessor President George W. Bush launched in Iraq and Afghanistan. From a peak 190,000 troops in 2008, today the Pentagon has just 15,000 troops in Afghanistan and 3,000 in Iraq.

At the same time, however, Obama has overseen a huge expansion in Special Operations Forces raids and drone strikes — a threefold boost in the robotic attacks compared to Bush. Obama was unapologetic about these tactics.

Expect commandos and drones to continue to dominate Obama’s military strategy in the remaining two years of his presidency.

“We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks,” Obama said Tuesday, “and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office, to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies.”

The remotely new idea in Obama’s speech is his plan to boost cybersecurity in the wake of the Sony hacking incident and other damaging information thefts. “We are making sure our government integrates intelligence to combat cyber threats,” Obama declared, “just as we have done to combat terrorism.”

The problem is that most cyber “threats” are criminal in nature — not military. And Obama would be wrong to make them a military problem.

 

Terry Golway, author of Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics and director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy

President Barack Obama didn’t get the memo that presidents become irrelevant after the mid-term elections in their second term.

In setting out his conspicuously left-of-center agenda, the president made clear that he has no intention of fading into irrelevancy. His State of the Union Address was far more confrontational and passionate than those given by recent two-term presidents this late in their tenure.

At the same point, presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Dwight D. Eisenhower all gave carefully calibrated messages. Reagan even used the occasion to admit he made a mistake in trading arms for hostages in Iran.

It would have been hard to imagine this Obama speech on election night, 2014, when the Democrats were pounded with nothing but bad news. Republicans seized public attention as they took Congress, and the 2016 campaign came into focus.

Save for Obama’s self-deprecating reference to his flaws on Tuesday, the president ceded nothing to his critics and partisan opponents. As second-term, mid-term State of the Union speeches go, this was almost breathtaking in its confidence and its well-done grace notes.

Democrats might well wonder where this Obama has been hiding.

 

Robert L. Borosage, president of the Institute for America’s Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America’s Future.

President Barack Obama got his swagger back on Tuesday. He laid out a bold agenda for making the U.S. economy work for working people, offering to pay for it by closing tax dodges used by global corporations and the very wealthy.

Many commentators are now criticizing the president for not adjusting to the Republican control of Congress, for not emphasizing and seeking common ground, as President Bill Clinton did when faced with the new Republican Congress under House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1994.

But this misses the point. Obama’s speech was designed to rouse his popular majority coalition — the majority that elected him twice — against the Republican congressional majority. He called for a debate on direction, on values — and he laid out elements of a position popular with the vast majority of Americans.

Obama wants his presidency to mark the beginning of a new era of long-overdue progressive reform. Rather than tack to conservative tides, he wants to bury the conservative era that began with President Ronald Reagan. He presented himself as eager to compromise — but ready to fight. And clearly willing to take that fight into the election of 2016, by framing the debate for whomever Democrats nominate.

Congressional Republicans are likely to block all the reforms — from raising the minimum wage, to childcare, pay equity for women, paid sick days and more. But the president can use the debate to help drive those same reforms in blue cities and states. He’ll push states to join Tennessee in offering two years of community college for free. He can use executive orders and regulations to reform overtime, change procurement to favor “good jobs,” force employers to limit carbon emissions and more.

Ironically, the one clear place where there is bipartisan agreement — on fast track trade authority — the president steps on his own message. He will stand with Republican leaders and the lobbies of global corporations and banks against the majority of his own party as well as increasing numbers of Tea Party Republicans. He’ll be defending agreements that reinforce the rules that are rigged against working people in the global economy.

There was one odd omission from the president’s long address: Any mention of curbing big money in politics or cleaning out the stables in corrupted Washington — including ending the revolving door between lobbies and the legislature. Most Americans are sensibly cynical about Washington. They don’t follow the partisan posturing. They just believe that many politicians are bought and sold — or at least rented — by big money and special interests.

Taking on Wall Street, challenging Washington corruption, pushing to curb big money in politics isn’t only good policy, it is good politics. Most important, it may be a necessary predicate to having credibility about any reform idea.

As a leader of a growing popular majority, Obama’s strategy makes sense. If the economy continues to grow, his popularity will continue to rise and the Republican Congress will be exposed as standing in the way.

Progressives will push his reforms at the state and local level. Republicans may well find it necessary to seek areas of cooperation — on criminal justice reform, on infrastructure investment, on extending the child and earned income tax credits.

By standing strong, the president is likely to gain more than he would by tacking right.

 

Julia Sweig, author of Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Cuba will rank close to the top of President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy legacy. That four-letter word, the one that has vexed 11 presidents since 1959, now rolls off the tongue of the president of the United States with relish, not vitriol.

Alan Gross thrusts his fist in the air as he is mentioned by President Barack Obama during his State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington

Alan Gross, recently released from prison in Cuba, thrusts his fist in the air as President Barack Obama mentioned him during the State of the Union Address on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 20, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The Obama White House has finally discovered that fixing Washington’s Cuba policy creates diplomatic and strategic opportunity in Latin America. At his address Tuesday, Obama welcomed home Alan Gross after five years in a Cuban jail. Watching Gross applaud Obama for at last conducting the diplomacy to get him back to the United States was extraordinary drama.

Obama has called on Congress to “begin the work of ending the embargo.” Leading up to that historic statement, the White House has been pushing its new Cuba policy of diplomatic normalization, and promoting executive regulations that blow open the doors to travel and trade with Cuba.

The remarkable thing is how little pushback we’ve seen. The U.S. public supports the president. Even the Cuban public supports the president — naming new babies in Havana “Obama.”

Obama’s Cuba policy shift is historic, important and, most probably, unstoppable.

24 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

“The problem is that most ‘cyber’ threats are criminal in nature–not military. And Obama would be wrong to make them a military problem.”

I’m amazed at the shortsightedness of this statement. Perhaps most cyber threats, to date, have been criminal in nature. This does not mean, however, that there isn’t a very real danger of cyber attacks being carried out against United States targets by other nations. The thought that a country like China or Russia might cripple the U.S. by, say, shutting down its electrical grid is a scenario that should make any of our nation’s leaders pause and think about how to protect against just such an attack.

Mr. Axe, as a so-called “national security” editor (expert?), is remiss to treat this kind of threat in such a cavalier manner.

Posted by Toomuchthinking | Report as abusive

He hasn’t been hiding anywhere. He’s been a good President. Conservatives are just poor losers and they whine a lot. Nothing new there.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Just what country is Obama talking about certainly not the united state I and most Americans live in. Obama is totally out of touch.

Posted by betrayed | Report as abusive

Obama is completely out of touch with most Americans. ‘His vision’ is not our Vision for America. More taxes, even though Federal receipts are at record levels, over $3T. More income distribution, even though the Deficit is at $18T and climbing, expected to move back to $1T annual deficits in 2017.
Taking credit for an economic ‘recovery’ that has left middle income Americans with lower wages today than when he entered office. That’s a recovery?
More ‘pats on the back’ for an utterly failed foreign policy, with the ME at war, Russia saber-rattling in Europe and radically increased terror threats, both at home and abroad.
More threats of veto (7 in 3 weeks), while at the same time saying ‘we need to work together without “demonizing”. He clearly did not get, nor cares to accept, the message the voters of this country gave to him a short 2 months ago. As a nation, we can’t ever have had a more out of touch President.
Instead of compromising like Clinton did in his 2nd term, and accomplishing a great deal of his agenda in a bipartisan manner – Obama chooses to confront and attack. The media should not continue to give him a ‘pass’.

Posted by willich6 | Report as abusive

It’s interesting that the Republicans have this idea that “the American people” took back congress. Actually it was something like less than 20% of Americans giving enough of a hoot to actually go out and vote Republican. The real message from the last election is that a record number of people are disgusted with the political process, and are sending the message that their votes aren’t for sale.

Posted by diluded0000 | Report as abusive

Custer’s last stand demonstrated his poor decision making and so it is with Obama. The facts and realities of the situation are lost and wishful thinking and rhetoric makes the decision.

Posted by fedupaj | Report as abusive

I hope the republicans don’t make the mistake of acting like the democrats – they need to stick to their guns and if not they will likely be voted out in a landslide next time. Make no mistake – we do not want you to cooperate any more than is absolutely necessary and we want a smaller government , less redistributive policies and a return to honesty in government.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

Significantly missing from the speech (and many – but not all – commentaries) is the pending US debt crisis. The US will default on sovereign debt soon unless action is taken. The Obama we see is the feckless, I don’t have to be responsible Obama. Tax cuts for the middle class? Why? Compared to other first world countries taxes on the middle class are much lower in the US and taxes on corporations and the rich are comparable. If you raise taxes you drive them away, as England found a few years ago. Repeating this history is a desire of the dismally ignorant. Free college? Who is going to pay for it? The real reason behind all this is to buddy up to the ignorant among the voters. Obama knows none of this is going to happen, that’s why he can propose utopia. He has no way to deliver what he proposes but he can always blame the Republican senate and house for not going along. If he really believed in these things would he not have proposed them when the Democrats had more control? This, in itself, is proof of what I say.

Posted by branchltd | Report as abusive

Obama has done many of the thing Republicans have been calling for – quadrupling domestic oil production, getting unemployment down to 5.6 per cent (much lower than Mitt Romney’s promised 6 per cent “by the end of my first term”), boosting the stock market and corporate profits to the roof,
bringing troops back from Iraq and Afghanistan, staying out of a war with Syria, cutting the deficit by two thirds !!!, slowing the growth of healthcare costs, relaunching the housing market, and something that even Romney said he would not do–saving the Big Three automakers with an extremely successful bailout (with almost all Fed funds now paid back).
And the GOP calls this “a failed presidency???”

John Patrick Grace
Huntington, West Virginia

Posted by publishersplace | Report as abusive

An excellent President. I am glad I voted for him. Twice.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/ jan/21/republican-live-stream-cuts-obama -climate-denial-remarks

The biggest threat to Humanity and God’s Creation is the Republican Party, murder in the first degree.

Peace be with you All.

Love
Omega

Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

The main problem with Obama is that he is not liberal ENOUGH. He’s a centrist. Even Ronald Reagan ran bigger federal spending deficits than Obama, and issued more executive orders (381 Reagan, 200 Obama).

To complain that Obama is on some run-away liberal power trip is to either be ignorant of history, or very dishonest about it. Obama is a centrist president with a far-right loony contingency of detractors.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Where has he been? Trying to win elections, which he couldn’t do saying the type of crazy crap you nutters want him to say. Now that his last two years are completely sunk he can humor your absolutely ridiculous political positions by discussing them with a straight face at the state of the union. Congratulations. I’m glad you’re impressed, but the message you should be taking is that these proposals are so unpalatable to the nation as a whole that they had to be saved up for this, the most pointless of all of his state of the union addresses.

Posted by EndlessIke | Report as abusive

Obama is dead set on his “legacy” – but many of his decisions to this point have not stood the test of time and will not, since he has less than two years left in office.

Who knows what the “amnesty” for up to 5 million illegals will do to the job market? Will the lower paying jobs be snatched up by the illegals, leaving the citizens and legal immigrants with few? Will the crime rate go up? Will more of our taxes be needed for their education, food, housing and more?

Cuba – how soon we forget what happened when Fidel Castro took over that country. Major investments by corporations in the US were gone – hotel/casinos, restaurants, corporations like PepsiCo – taken by the Cuban government lock, stock and barrel. US corporations and smaller businesses lost all their investments – buildings, equipment. The Cuban government is not stupid and who is to say this cannot happen again?

More taxes – while people are struggling to make ends meet. Federal taxes are high now and Obama wants more. No mention of cutting the waste in government – no mention of cutting the federal workforce (the Pentagon, according to the latest report from the GAO, does not know how many people it employs!). No mention of cutting the “foreign aid” to countries that hate our guts and end up using the military aid against us and the humanitarian aid never reaches the people who need it.

Now the fury of the president is focused on the invitation by Congress to Netanyahu. Did Obama ask Congress if he could have his one-on-one meeting with Pena Nieto? Does he ask Congress if he can have meetings with Sharpton? Congress is an independent branch of our government and is finally acting as such. No more rubber-stamping of Obama’s policies.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

AZreb complains: “More taxes – while people are struggling to make ends meet.”

Uhh…the people who would get higher taxes are not “struggling to make ends meet.” Obama is basically proposing to give tax CREDITS to working people ($500 each) while returning the top 2% of wealthy people to the same rate they paid under Reagan’s plan (28%).

Was Reagan right and Obama is wrong? Explain. It appears a lot of your complaints are just the tired partisan rants dished out daily on AM radio talk shows. You can do better.

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