It might mark a new chapter — except President Obama recently compared his presidency to a paragraph in the larger story.
Make it a new sentence, then, complete with different verbs and upbeat, buzzy nouns: “action,” “ladders of opportunity,” “we can’t wait.”
It’s a sentence pronounced with a different voice, a humbler tone for a different stage of a presidency that’s been ground down by Washington realities. There’s an urgency there that betrays both diminished ambitions and a new awareness of the limitations of presidential power.
“Let’s see where else we can make progress together,” President Obama said. “Let’s make this a year of action.”
The president on Tuesday night outlined a vision for the remainder of his presidency that’s both larger and smaller. He’s aiming larger in terms of what he can accomplish by himself, and quickly.
Yet he’s also aiming smaller. The actions he outlined — items like a higher minimum wage for federal contractors, and commitments from companies to consider hiring the long-term unemployed — represent incremental movement from the man who famously declared, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
To the pen and phone, the president is adding new task forces and coalitions, red-tape cutting and groups he’s promising to convene. Vice President Joe Biden has another new job, this one to streamline job training programs.
The big calls for bipartisan action were there, sure. But it’s telling that this line, on his signature health care reform measure, was intended to elicit laughs: “I do not expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law.”
It’s hard to imagine the Barack Obama of 2008-2009, or even 2012-2013, would make a similar admission, much less one he even chuckled at himself.
In that sense, the president is providing a marker for his own journey — from the mountaintop to a less-exalted reality — in beginning the sixth year of his presidency. This is the year, as he well knows, that will seal his second-term fate, with the midterm elections that loom in November.
Obama speeches will always be graded on a curve — a curve he helped build through soaring oratory that drove him to the White House. Now, it’s as if the president can see the politics of moment bending away from him.
The most soaring passages of the evening came when the president talked of personal journeys — his own, House Speaker John Boehner’s, and those who’ve served, sacrificed and succeeded in modern America.
The president showed on Tuesday night that he still has hope, and that he still intends to bring change. He seemed at ease in his changing vision for the job. He’s aware that the power of his own example remains.
But this was President Obama admitting that a central piece of his promise — to change the nation’s politics — hasn’t been fulfilled. His persuasive powers have severe limits.
Should the president’s accomplishments end now, he has done plenty to claim success. But after a dismal first year of his second term, he may well wind up spending the final six years of his time in office defending what he accomplished in the first two. That’s not the kind of action he once hoped for.