The State of the Union
address is an exercise in political theater -- a pep rally for the president, an opportunity for the opposition to glower in disagreement, a showcase moment for the guests invited to sit with the First Lady -- and, to a lesser extent, an exercise in goal-setting that usually involves a lengthy wish list.
President Barack Obama followed the script Tuesday as he faced Congress as a second-term president with an agenda for the next four years focusing on economic growth, gun control and, to a lesser extent, wrapping up the decade-long war in Afghanistan.
"We have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and we can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is strong," Obama said, drawing applause from Democrats and expressions from Republicans that raised from tepid approval to downright hostility.
The division that was so apparent in the House chamber Tuesday night will be a key factor -- if not the deciding one -- in whether the ambitious legislative program outlined by the president actually materializes or is derailed by politics and concerns about the deficit.
Obama lobbied for an increase in the federal minimum wage, bringing it to $9 per hour by 2015, increased federal spending for infrastructure, a $15 billion initiative focusing on housing and expanding early childhood education to 4-year-olds. He pledged that none of the proposals would increase the deficit "by a single dime." Look for Republicans to be skeptical on that one.
The president's call for a ban on assault weapons and ammunition magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds, as well as background checks on every firearms purchase, is another politically contentious item. So is his proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, which includes a pathway to eventual citizenship for 11 million immigrants. Both measures are far-reaching, fraught with challenges to the status quo; whether the president will be able to prevail could depend on how much political capital he is willing to expend on them -- and whether that will be enough to override strong opposition from the GOP.
In addition to his domestic agenda, Obama also vowed to withdraw about half of the 66,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan within a year, proceeding with plans to wrap up that war -- which began in 2001 -- within the next two years. The president made good on his pledge to end the war in Iraq and appears to be on track to follow through on his promise to end the other costly conflict he inherited from the Bush administration.
He also mentioned North Korea, which continues to provoke Washington with its growing nuclear program. Iran also remains a foreign policy challenge.
Second-term presidents, who are lame ducks even as they celebrate their re-election, tend to view their final years in office as a time for securing their legacy in history. Bill Clinton, whose second term was overshadowed by the personal scandal that led to his impeachment, trumpeted a budget surplus as he left office. Ronald Reagan, who carried 49 states to win his second term, saw his legislative efforts eclipsed by the Iran-Contra scandals. Richard Nixon, another 49-state victor, left partway through his second term rather than face being turned out of office by Congress.
Barack Obama has outlined an agenda that, if realized, could help secure his place in history. Whether he will be able to realize it remains to be seen.