President Obama brought his agenda back to the basics in the first State of the Union address of his second term, with a stripped-down economic prescription that bore the scars of four years marked by frustration.
But where he’s best-positioned to define his presidency is where he found his strongest emotion. Obama’s speech will be remembered for high points that drew on the imagery of the audience and this moment in time.
“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote,” Obama thundered, referencing the countless individuals touched by gun violence. “They deserve a vote.”
The White House promised a fiery speech on jobs and the economy. It was expected to be a progressive vision for a second term, built on pillars of American manufacturing, innovation, and education.
Maybe that was all there in the aggregate. But presidencies aren’t remembered by special commissions or public-private partnerships or federal aid to support state experimentation.
That was small ball. Perhaps the president can’t play any other game on the economy, not with a Republican-controlled House and a divided Senate that aren’t inclined to approve any new spending measures, at all, period.
Perhaps those kinds of fights won’t ever be what animates this president. To the continuing frustration of his allies on the left, Obama has signaled a willingness to negotiate on core Democratic principles; to be reborn now as a staunch defender of a liberal support network, vowing to protect entitlements against all comers, would be both fruitless and less than genuine.
Where Obama soared, though, is where he’s tracking the national mood. On immigration, where much of the work is getting done even without his prodding, the president demanded action he’s likely to get.
And on gun control, with victims’ families packing the gallery, the president found a clear voice that was the only hint in this speech of the Obama whose oratory fueled his rise to prominence.
“I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence,” he said. “But this time is different.”
It isn’t so different that anything will come without a fight. House Speaker John Boehner sat impassively off the president’s shoulder, a visible reminder that not everyone in Washington shares Obama’s sense of urgency on the same issues.
But speeches like this are only important for their moments. Laundry lists don’t age well.
This wasn’t how President Obama envisioned his second term when he won it, with a battle over guns that he barely hinted at during the campaign.
It sure looks, though, like he knows how his tenure will be judged. If the passion in the House chamber spills out into the wider national debate, this speech will be remembered for what it captured – and for what it launched.