Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 | 2:02 a.m.
President Barack Obama is a freer man than he has been at any point in his presidency. He is free from the need to save an economy close to collapse, from illusions that Republicans in Congress would work with him readily, from the threat of a rising Tea Party movement, and from the need to win re-election.
This sense of freedom gave his State of the Union address an energy, an ease and a specificity that were lacking in earlier speeches written with an eye toward immediate political needs. It was his most Democratic State of the Union, unapologetic in channeling the love Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson had for placing long lists of initiatives on the nation’s agenda. Obama sees his second term not as a time of consolidation but as an occasion for decisively changing the direction of our politics.
Here was an Obama unafraid to lay out a compelling argument for the urgency of acting on global warming. He was undaunted in challenging the obsession with the federal budget — and in scolding Congress for going from “one manufactured crisis to the next.” By insisting that “we can’t just cut our way to prosperity” and that “deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan,” he brought to mind the great liberal economist John Maynard Keynes. He sought to add another big achievement to near universal health care coverage, announcing a new goal of making “high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.”
And Obama made clear his determination to shift the center of gravity in the nation’s political conversation away from anti-government conservatism, offering a vision that is the antithesis of the supply-side economics that has dominated conservative thought since the Reagan era.
If supply-siders claim that prosperity depends upon showering financial benefits on wealthy “job creators” at the economy’s commanding heights, Obama argued that economic well-being emanates from the middle and bottom, with help from a government that “works on behalf of the many and not just the few.”
The “true engine of America’s economic growth,” he said, is a “rising, thriving middle class.” He continued: “It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country, the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like or who you love.” With that last phrase, he linked gay rights to an older liberalism’s devotion to class solidarity and racial equality.
An Obama no longer worried about re-election was the worst nightmare of conservatives who feared he would veer far to the left if given the chance. In the GOP’s response, Sen. Marco Rubio conjured that liberal bogeyman, declaring that the president’s “solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.”
But Rubio’s rhetoric felt stale, disconnected from the Obama who spoke before him. Obama did speak for liberalism, yes, but it is a tempered liberalism. His preschool proposal, after all, is modeled in part on the success of a program in Oklahoma, one the nation’s reddest states. Most of the president’s initiatives involve modest new spending, and many, including his infrastructure and manufacturing plans, are built on partnerships with private industry.
Even the president’s welcomed call to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour and to index it to inflation was cautious by his own standards. In 2008, Obama had urged a $9.50 minimum wage, and it rightly ought to be set at $10 or above.
Moreover, the president’s words were carefully calibrated to the issue in question. On immigration reform — in deference to cross-party work in which Rubio himself is engaged — Obama kept the rhetorical temperature low, praising “bipartisan groups in both chambers.” But he invoked all of his rhetorical skills on the matter of gun safety, a more complex legislative sell. His gospel-preacher’s variations on the phrase “they deserve a vote” will long echo in the House chamber.
No, the liberated Obama is not some new, leftist tribune. He’s the moderately progressive Obama who started running for president before there was a financial crisis or a Tea Party. In his 2006 book “The Audacity of Hope,” he proposed to end polarization by organizing a “broad majority of Americans” who would be “re-engaged in the project of national renewal” and would “see their own self-interest as inextricably linked to the interests of others.” On Tuesday night, creating this majority was what he still had in mind.
E.J. Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post.