An Analysis of President Obama's 2012 State of the Union Address

In his 2012 State of the Union Address, Barack Obama issued a ringing call for government to take the lead in rebuilding an economy that works for all Americans and to revive the promise of a more cooperative politics that carried him to the White House in 2008.  While many of the specific measures he urged are likely to resonate with the public, it remains to be seen whether he can persuade the majority of Americans to set aside their long-festering mistrust of government and give him a mandate to pursue an aggressive policy agenda.

What about the specifics?  In advance of President Obama’s State of the Union address, I laid out five things to listen for.  Against that template, let’s look more closely at what he said.

#1: For better or worse, an incumbent president’s record is at the heart of his reelection prospects.  He cannot run away from that record; he must run on it.  So what is the narrative that links the crises of 2008-2009 and the disappointments of 2010-2011 to our hopes for a brighter future?

Toward the beginning of his speech, Obama offered his account of our recent economic history.  Even before the recession, he said, jobs began going overseas while wages and incomes for most American were stagnating.  And then the crisis hit, sparked by mortgages sold to people who couldn’t afford them and inadequately regulated financial institutions who made bad bets with other people’s money.  He reminded the country that in the six months before he took office, the economy lost four million jobs, and another four million in the early months of his presidency.  Since then, however, the private sector—led by manufacturing – has created millions of new jobs.  And so, he concluded, “The state of our Union is getting stronger.  And we’ve come too far to turn back now.”  Rather than changing course, the task before us is to “build on this momentum.”

#2: The American people know that the U.S. economy has changed fundamentally and that the “success story” of the future will differ from those in the past.  But what is that story?

In broad terms, Obama is betting on the continued revival of U.S. manufacturing, backed by targeted public investments in sectors such as clean energy and infrastructure.  As he has before, he called for a major effort in the areas of education and training as well as support for basic research.  While globalization is here to stay, he added, we cannot allow our competitors to victimize us with unfair trade practices, and he advocated a new Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating “unfair trade practices in countries like China.”  And to accelerate domestic job creation, he urged corporate tax reform that ends subsidies for outsourcing while reducing taxes for companies that remain, and hire, in America.

#3: The plight of hard-working Americans—those struggling to remain in the middle class and those struggling to get there—must be front and center.  How did the president frame his appeal to this bedrock of our economy and society?

As he did in his Kansas speech last month, Obama invoked a country and economy where “everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”  Symbolizing these principles, he called for tax reforms that follow the “Buffett rule”—namely, “If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes.”  At the same time, the president virtually dropped the theme of inequality, which had figured centrally in the Kansas speech.  This was a wise shift: in America’s public culture, the principle of fair opportunity is more powerful than is equality of wealth and income.

#4: Public trust in our governing institutions is at or near all-time lows.  To the extent that Obama’s agenda revolves around an activist government, how did he seek to persuade Americans that its policies can actually improve their lives?

While acknowledging public cynicism about government and calling for reforms of Congress and the executive branch, the president appeared to be hoping that the content of his economic agenda would trump doubts about the effectiveness of the public sector.  He may well be underestimating the intensity of negative public sentiment and overestimating its willingness to accept what many will portray as a new burst of activism.

#5: Barack Obama is not just a candidate; he’s the president, and the people expect him to speak as the president.  How did he balance his strategy of drawing the line with the Republicans against the imperative of conducting himself as the president of all the people?

For the most part, Obama addressed the country as president rather than party leader.  While giving no ground on his key priorities, he spoke of differences between the parties more in sorrow than in anger and tried to identify some common ground, even on the core issue of the role of government.  He called on everyone to “lower the temperature in this town” and to “end the notion that the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction.”  And he observed that “when we act together, there is nothing the United States of America can’t achieve.

Throughout his speech, Obama invoked the principles of fairness, collective action, and common purpose.  Conspicuously absent was the theme on which the Republican Party rests its case—namely, individual liberty—a contrast that prefigures a 2012 general election waged over clashing partisan orientations as well as competing accounts of the president’s record.