By any measure, President Obama’s first term was consequential. In four years, he signed an $800 billion stimulus program into law, laid the foundation for universal health insurance, secured new regulations governing the financial sector, repealed "don't ask, don't tell," and put the United States on the path back to economic recovery.
For his second term, he has an agenda that’s just as ambitious and—reflecting the coalition that re-elected him—unambiguously progressive. Other than a de rigeur nod to deficit reduction—he mentioned “the deficit” ten times—the speech ticked off a litany of liberal policies: Universal pre-school, a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions, a higher federal minimum wage (set at 9$ an hour, the highest it’s been since 1981), and billions more in new infrastructure spending to repair roads and bridges. That’s to say nothing of comprehensive immigration reform (with a path to citizenship for the undocumented) and new gun laws, including an assault-weapons ban and universal background checks. Add to this a large number of small-bore measures—like a bipartisan voting-rights commission—meant to play well with the public and secure support from both sides of the aisle.
If only half of the measured he laid out tonight are implemented in the next four years—and if the economy continues to grow—Obama will have had a successful second term.
This gets to the problem with the president's bold agenda. These proposals can only happen if Congress crafts legislation and puts it to a vote. But there’s little sign the legislature has the political will to do anything other than what is absolutely necessary. In the House of Representatives, conservative Republicans have near-veto power on nearly everything that goes through the chamber; Speaker John Boehner is reluctant to reach across the aisle for Democratic votes lest he harm his standing with his party. In the Senate, Republicans have continued their categorical opposition to anything Democrats or the president support—All items are subject to a filibuster, which means nothing can pass without 60 votes from the entire body. For common-sense legislation—like the Violence Against Women Act—this isn’t a huge problem. But for anything more contentious, it’s a massive stumbling block.
When, at the emotional high point of the speech, Obama declared that “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote,” it wasn’t just a rhetorical flourish; he was alluding directly to the impasse and gridlock that defines Congress. When he promised to direct the Cabinet to “come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution and prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change,” he was issuing a threat to Republicans: If you continue to needlessly block legislation, I will go around Congress and find other ways to implement my agenda. The most representative line of the entire speech, in fact, was this (in reference to a mortgage-reform proposal): “Take a vote, and send me that bill.”
The unfortunate fact is that—with the exceptions of immigration reform and gun control—Congress won’t be taking a vote. Republicans have a direct stake in passing immigration reform—they need to rebuild their standing with Latino voters—and public support for new gun laws is large enough to compel a compromise. For everything else, however, there’s little incentive for Republicans to cooperate.
To the elation of his progressive supporters, Obama laid out his progressive vision in forceful terms last night. But barring a change in Congress—which means a shift in the how the GOP does business—this agenda will have to serve as a signpost for future Democrats and not a plan of action.