The state of Obama's presidency, 5 years in

A State of the Union address is typically a workmanlike affair – presidents can strive for the lofty and inspirational, but in the end, much of their speech will amount to a laundry list of achievements and aspirations. Substance, by necessity, crowds out style.

 As a result, the speech tends to be less visionary than, say, an inaugural address, which aims at posterity rather than the politics of the moment. But the substantive quality of State of the Union addresses also makes them an excellent chronicle of a president’s agenda as it unfolds – a totem for the successes, failures, and unrealized ambitions of an administration that, each year, grapples with new opportunities and new problems.

President Obama’s own State of the Union addresses tell quite a story. Obamacare, the stimulus package, Wall Street reform, an ailing auto industry, gun violence, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, economic inequality, immigration reform – it’s all there, in gory detail, a permanent reminder of where the president secured victory and where he fell short.

As Mr. Obama prepares to give his fifth State of the Union speech on Tuesday (his sixth, if you count his first speech before a Joint Session of Congress in February 2009), a look at his past addresses provides an instructive look of the powers and limits of the presidency.

2009: The honeymoon

In February 2009, the president was still basking in the glow of his big 2008 victory, boasting a job approval spread of 62 to 15 percent in a CBS News poll. But he had his work cut out for him - the U.S. was still knee-deep in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, with an unemployment rate at 8.3 percent and climbing. 

 Mr. Obama didn’t sugarcoat the situation in his address, noting “the stark reality of what we've inherited – a trillion dollar deficit, a financial crisis, and a costly recession.”

He touted his recently passed $787 billion stimulus package, the largest economic stimulus program in American history. And without delving too far into specifics, the president promised a “historic commitment” to reforming America’s health care system. That vow would eventually yield his most significant (and controversial) domestic achievement: the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and the recalibration of much of America’s health insurance market.

The president nodded at the explosion of the budget deficit due to the recession, but he paired that with a focus on “long-term investments” - a balancing act would become a hallmark of his approach to budgetary policy throughout his presidency. 

He also vowed to deliver on a key campaign promise by pursuing a new strategy in Afghanistan to turn the tide of the war there and by “responsibly” ending the war in Iraq.  Within three years, the last U.S. soldier would depart Iraqi soil.

2010: The hangover

By the time his next big speech arrived in January 2010, Mr. Obama’s honeymoon was long since gone. Unemployment had shot up to 9.7 percent, down only slightly from a high of 10 percent a month earlier. His approval ratings, once nearly celestial, had fallen to back to earth at 50 percent in a CBS poll conducted that month.

Perhaps most ominously, the momentum behind the president’s push for health care reform had been deeply undermined by the raucous town hall protests throughout the fall of 2009, which saw supporters of the proposed reforms on the receiving end of angry protests from conservative constituents.

 “By now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics,” the president said, grinning at his own understatement. But he pleaded with Congress to keep moving forward, despite the noise. “As temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we've proposed,” he said. “Don’t walk away from reform.” By the end of March, Mr. Obama signed his health reform plan into law.

The ascendance of the Republican Party, which had been briefly cowed by the president’s big win in 2008, was also evident in a new emphasis on deficit reduction. “Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions," Mr. Obama said. "The federal government should do the same.”

The embrace of deficit reduction previewed one of the biggest struggles of Mr. Obama’s presidency, as negotiations over a budgetary “grand bargain,” votes to lift the debt ceiling, and other fiscal wrangling consumed much of the next several years.

  • Jake Miller

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