Understanding what Tuesday night’s State of the Union address was really about requires first understanding what it wasn’t about: Debt. For the first time since the early days of his presidency, President Obama offered an economic message freed from the crippling politics of austerity.
That becomes clearer when you look at Obama’s past speeches. First year-presidents don’t technically give a “state of the union” address,” but on February 24, 2009, Obama rose before Congress to give the functional equivalent. In it, he began telling the story that he hoped would guide his domestic policy. He said the financial crisis afflicting the nation was the symptom of a deeper malady, which had begun many years before. That malady was America’s failure to foster the kind of widely shared economic growth it had enjoyed in the decades after World War II. “Now is the time to act boldly and wisely,” he declared, “to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity.
For a time, “new foundation” looked like Obama’s version of “New Deal” or “New Frontier”: the phrase that summed up his economic vision. Under its rubric in that 2009 speech, Obama proposed not only a stimulus to revive the economy, but big energy, education, and healthcare initiatives designed to lay “the foundation for our common prosperity” once the financial crisis subsided. Although he pledged to cut the deficit too, it was a distinctly lesser theme.
In 2010, Obama returned to his signature phrase. Insisting that “We can't afford another so-called economic ‘expansion’ like the one from the last decade … where the income of the average American household declined,” he promised to “lay a new foundation for long-term economic growth, and finally address the problems that America's families have confronted for years.” He talked about a second stimulus, about new spending on energy infrastructure and community colleges and he pushed healthcare reform. But by 2010, Obama’s popularity was down and Republicans were apoplectic about the rising government debt, and so Obama’s “new foundation” found itself competing with a new emphasis on deficit reduction. “Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same,” he declared, even though Keynesian economics would suggest doing exactly the opposite. Despite acknowledging that the economic “devastation” from the Great Recession “remains,” Obama proposed freezing government spending for three years and proposed a bipartisan commission to suggest longer-term cuts.
By Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, Republicans had taken the House and the phrase “new foundation” had disappeared. Obama proposed new government money for biomedical research, transportation infrastructure and 100,000 new science and math teachers. But this time, he also promised to freeze federal spending for five years, thus even more thoroughly subordinating his “new foundation” agenda to deficit reduction. “Now that the worst of the recession is over,” he declared, “we have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in,” even though government spending more than it took in was the only thing keeping many Americans from experiencing the “worst of the recession” yet again.