President Obama has had, at best, mixed success in his first year in office. There were several accomplishments of note in his freshman year, including the passage of legislation expanding health care for uninsured children and relaxing restrictions on lawsuits against employers who discriminate in their salary practices. The appointment of Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic justice to the Supreme Court was a monumental achievement. Obama’s most memorable actions, however, have been passing an economic stimulus package, bailing out the banking industry and presiding over the long, arduous process of reforming America’s healthcare system. Conservatives have always strongly opposed Obama’s agenda, but over the last six months frustration has grown even among the left as Obama has abandoned the leadership role on his signature issue — health care — instead allowing our dysfunctional legislature to direct discourse. Americans of all political stripes have been left confused and angry by an opaque political system and a steady stream of misinformation. The State of the Union speech was Obama’s best chance to recover politically and provide the country with real leadership. Did he deliver?
The short answer is yes. One can quarrel with the individual policies Obama outlined in his first State of the Union, but his emphatic, spirited defense of his actions, pointed refusal to drop his ambitious agenda and challenge to members of the legislature in both parties was a sorely needed display of strong leadership from the president, and a break from the disappointingly stoic approach the public has become accustomed to in his first year in office. After a week characterized by a democratic party in disarray, his strong showing at the State of the Union gave the party an opportunity to regroup. The president also repeatedly called out the dysfunction of the Senate, repeatedly referring to bills that have passed the House only to slowly die in that arcane chamber of doom, while properly holding the Republicans responsible for their childish abuse of the filibuster. Is it too much to hope that he’s setting the stage for institutional reform?
Finally, a note to Republicans: Gov. Bob McDonnell’s response contained the typical “tax cuts good, federal government bad” rhetoric that has become the boilerplate republican solution to nearly everything. There was one troubling line, however. McDonnell’s veiled allusion to states’ rights in his line warning Obama not to “undermine the proper role of state and local governments in our system of federalism” may have been entirely innocent, but when delivered by a white man, in response to our first black president, inside the chamber that inaugurated confederate President Jefferson Davis, it raises suspicion, especially when the GOP has a notorious history of race baiting in recent years. Coupled with the painfully forced diversity among the audience sitting directly behind McDonnell, it makes for a hilarious backdrop, and a reminder to voters that Republicans have only a shallow commitment to healing the racial divide that still persists in the United States.