13 Feb 2013

For the many, not the few: Obama’s bold liberal vision

Assertive, confident and in no mood for compromise. After years of frustration at a bitterly divided Congress, Obama laid out his priorities for the next four years: a wish list, or a realistic plan?

Obama greeting members of Congress (getty)

Assertive, confident and in no mood for compromise. After years of frustration at a bitterly divided Congress, Obama laid out his priorities for the next four years: a wish list, or a realistic plan?

It began with a quote from John F Kennedy, and echoed the unashamed liberalism of the inaugural address. A rise in the minimum wage, a promise to provide pre-school education to every child, a revival of the $50bn infrastructure spending plan, legislation to tackle climate change.

“It is our unfinished task”, the president declared, “to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few.” Just to make sure the message was clear, he went on: “If you work hard and meet your responsibilites, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”

As House Speaker John Boehner and his Republican colleagues sat stoney-faced. barely rousing themselves for even a token burst of applause, it looked as if they were playing right into the White House strategy book, painting the GOP as the defenders of the rich.

The speech, all 6,000 words of it, contained the usual wish list of promises, few of which are likely to make it past the deadlocked Congress, but still: this new, combative has gone down well with voters – and Obama has switched to some kind of permanant campaign mode.

(click on the image to open the Snowcloud – then scroll over words to see how often they were used, or click on them to find them in Obama’s address – some words have been removed such as “America”, “American”s, “don’t” and “today”.)

What words did Barack Obama use the most? Jobs (31), Energy (18), People (18), Families (17), Work (17), Education (14), High (14), Job (14), Need (14), Economy (13), Home (13), Tax (13), Last (11),Vote (11), Defecit (10), Help (10), Keep (10), Middle (10), Reform (10), Act (9), Class (9), Cuts (9), Security (9), Want (9), Change (8), Communities (8), Future (8), Power (8), Protect (8), Schools (8)

“We won’t grow the middle class simply by shifting the cost of health care or college onto families that are already struggling”, he warned. “We can’t just cut our way to prosperity.”

But his proposal to avoid the automatic spending cuts and tax hikes which will come into effect on March 1st involved the very measures which Boehner and the Republicans have already rejected. $900bn in budget cuts and $600bn in new revenue, including tax reforms.

No matter: so far, at least, the Obama second term is showing itself to be less about reaching across the aisle, more about pushing through his agenda by sheer force of argument.

The president laid down the gauntlet too, on guns: the issue which has forced its way into what may become his legacy. It was the high point of his speech, in emotional power at least, and a direct challenge to his opponents.

As the parents of a 15 year old girl shot dead in Chicago looked on from the gallery – Obama pushed forward with his pledge for sweeping gun controls, including a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

“They deserve a vote”, he declared. “The countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.” His chances of winning it, however – another matter altogether.

John Boehner immediately slammed Obama for a “go-it-alone approach to pursue his liberal agenda”, although the party’s official response was left to Florida senator Marco Rubio, who did his best to draw a line under the whole Mitt Romney era and start over.

His was also a pitch to the blue collar middle class, with frequent reminders of his own, humble past.

“I still live in the same working class neighborhood I grew up in,” he said. “My neighbors aren’t millionaires.” And, he stressed, he hadn’t inherited any money from his parents. “But I inherited something far better – the real opportunity to accomplish my dreams.”

And, in a sign of just how far the Republican party is determined to change, Rubio gave the speech twice – in English and Spanish.

But the night will not be remembered for the Republican response: nor, neccessarily for the exact details of Obama’s address.

As former White House chief of staff David Gergen told CNN, this was all about setting a political direction. “Bill Clinton stood at that lecturn and said the era of big government is over. Tonight, it seemed to be making a comeback.”

Obama is now on the road, in an effort to sell that message with renewed vigour. His first call, right after the speech, was to supporters, encouraging them to keep the campaign going: there is already a new Twitter hashtag, #jobsnow, and a Google hangout with the President on Thursday.

The lesson of the first four years, supporters believe, was one of wasted opportunities. This time they are determined to use the brief window of the second term, not just to choose their battles, but to fight them. And the president himself? He’s certainly up for the fight.