Obama Takes a Victory Lap

A confident president redefines his achievements as a defense of middle-class economics.

Mandel Ngan/AP

Early in his State of the Union speech Tuesday, President Obama declared, “Tonight, we turn the page.”

Easier said than done. The economy is finally starting to look up for more than just the top earners, and American confidence is on the rise. But while the president’s ratings have gained some buoyancy too, he still doesn’t get as much credit for that as he’d like. And despite a few good political weeks, his agenda faces long odds in a Republican Congress. Turning the page, in other words, will require more than just a flick of the fingers, and the president needs Americans to remember the previous chapters well. Turning the page too quickly could sweep his old achievements out of mind.

That gave Obama’s sixth State of the Union a strange cast. While asking Americans to look forward to an agenda he knows won’t be enacted, he also took care to remind them of what has already been accomplished: an economic recovery, fiscal reform, and a revolution in energy.

“At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits,” he said. “Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years.”

Obama had already previewed many of the biggest points before he arrived at the Capitol, making the substance of the speech somewhat anticlimactic. He reprised his calls for two free years of community college and for paid sick leave. He called for a higher minimum wage, delivering one of the more energetic jabs of the speech: “And to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it.” Most importantly, he called for taxing the wealthy more and closing key tax loopholes, while offering the middle class a break.

The president had a phrase for all this: “middle-class economics.” That’s a new term for him, but he made the case that each of his major initiatives so far, from the Affordable Care Act to financial reform, fit under the rubric. Whether this will become a lasting mantra is hard to tell. In the summer of 2013, Obama briefly adopted “middle-out economics” as a slogan, only to drop it soon after. But framing his proposals as championing a group most Americans believe they’re a part of offers a good political position—and a useful opening gambit for negotiations over revamping the tax code. And if it doesn’t do anything now, he and his allies figure, there’s always the 2016 presidential election.

Elsewhere in the speech, Obama boasted about the opening of Cuba and guaranteed new cybersecurity proposals. As he has in speech after speech, he demanded that Congress spend more money on revamping the nation’s infrastructure. As he’s done in past States of the Union, he grouped a laundry list of foreign-policy ideas toward the end of the speech.

None of the policy goals Obama enunciated would suggest a president with narrowing horizons. True, there were really no radically new ideas, but he demanded a slate of progressive policies and offered no sign that he was ready to roll over and surrender to a Republican Congress. Obama himself seemed relaxed and comfortable. Yet one indication of a president adjusting to constraints was the essential emotional hollowness of the speech. In past years, he’s worked hard to end the State of the Union on a high emotional note. Two years ago, he told the story of Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago teen gunned down just after performing at his inauguration. Last year, it was the story of grievously wounded Army Ranger Cory Remsburg.

This year, it was an appeal to abstract principles: “My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I’ve had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol — to do what I believe is best for America. If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, join me in the work at hand. If you disagree with parts of it, I hope you’ll at least work with me where you do agree.”

Near the end of the speech, the president took on the great unspoken assumption that seems to permeate America today, from the people to the pundits to the politicians: “I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.” That’s a sign that Obama knows exactly what he faces over the next two years. Polls show Americans agree with the president that the state of the union is strong. Convincing them that the government can make it even better and has the will to do so is still a tough sell.

David A. Graham

This liveblog is in reverse chronological order. To read it from the start at the speech, begin at the bottom.

10:42 p.m. Joni Ernst's response to the State of the Union was an extraordinarily safe, boring, sometimes saccharine statement from someone who seemed most interested in telling us that she is a very ordinary Midwesterner, a claim she restated several times, despite her much-better-than-ordinary resume. The subtext of her speech: "Associate the new Republican majority with God-fearing, hard-working Midwesterners, who want the best for their country." It was, in other words, a speech meant to reassure people who already support Republicans rather than persuade anyone about anything of substance. "Us Republicans are members of your cultural tribe," she may as well have said. If the GOP hopes to recapture the White House, it will have to broaden its current coalition. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:12 p.m. Seven years in, President Obama continues to speak as if what's necessary to improve America is for "both sides" to make basic concessions–for example, that it's understandable for parents to fear their kids might be harassed by police and understandable for the spouse of a police officer to worry if he or she will come home safe. In fact, the vast majority of Americans already agree with both of those propositions, the vast majority of politicians would be happy to acknowledge them too–and as such, it's rather clear that something more is needed for, in this case, prudent policing policy. Insofar as there is something that ails policymaking it isn't a failure to grant widely held beliefs. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:08 p.m. When Obama, in an effort to frame his agenda as rising above political concerns, declared, "I have no more campaigns to run," Republicans burst into cheers. Apparently unable to resist the opportunity, even at the risk of undercutting his message, the president quipped, "I know, because I won both of them." The line brought down the House. But the exchange underscores the difficulties Obama faces whenever he tries to escape the pull of partisanship. —Yoni Appelbaum

10:06 p.m. The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner propelled criminal justice reform into the national discourse last summer and into the president's address tonight. Obama acknowledges that "for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together," framing the decline as a launching pad "to reform America's criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all." Curiously, Obama didn't outline what those reforms could or should be. The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, which aims to reduce some of the harsher sentencing laws on the books today, didn't even get a shout-out. —Matt Ford

10:04 p.m. President Obama suggests that he "has worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained." In fact, if he left office today, he'd leave his successor with this precedent: a single man in the White House empowered to kill in secret, with no need to acknowledge the strike or whether it kills "militants" or innocents. Such strikes continue to be carried out even in countries where the U.S. has declared no war. And there is little transparency surrounding the number or identity of those killed. —Conor Friedersdorf

10:04 p.m. The failure to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is President Obama’s original broken promise. And in the seventh year of his presidency, he said again on Tuesday that he would “not relent in my determination to shut it down.” The line got a relatively muted response in the Capitol chamber, and for good reason: It is Congress—both Republicans and Democrats—that has blocked the administration’s efforts to relocate prisoners to the U.S. mainland. So as the GOP takes control, Obama’s only hope is that he will find enough allied countries to take detainees off his hands. With two years left and more than 100 prisoners still at Gitmo, it will be a tough task. —Russell Berman

9:57 p.m. President Obama expressed his intention to abide by the purported expectation of Americans that the U.S. government will only wage war as a measure of last resort. But neither the public, which supported the War in Iraq when it was launched, nor Obama, who waged a war of choice in Libya, as well as hundreds of drone strikes of choice in Pakistan and Yemen, actually holds such a belief. The U.S. wages war as an other-than-last resort all the time. Majorities almost never object. That Americans won't admit as much suggests a lingering discomfort with our revealed preference for wars of choice. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:51 p.m. Led by Representative Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, Democrats held up and waved pencils in a show of solidarity with France during Obama’s brief mention of the terrorist attacks against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The reference, just a few words long, was so quick, however, that many viewers may have missed the moment. —Russell Berman

9:50 p.m. It is noteworthy, if not surprising, that President Obama assumes his responsibility as commander in chief to protect the U.S. is always consistent with the imperative that America leads, which he characterizes as a question of "how" not "if." This unexamined assumption informs the foreign policies of both Democrats and Republicans. But many of America's earliest presidents believed that there were times and places when our role wasn't to lead. At times, President Washington believed that we were called to avoid foreign entanglements. It is striking that today, even after so many ill-chosen wars abroad and the damage they caused, so few in the Capitol building can conceive of that counsel ever being correct. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:43 p.m. In case Obama's veto threats hadn't made it clear that he is skeptical of the Keystone XL pipeline project, he offered more hints during a section on infrastructure: "Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline." His alternative prescription includes modernizing ports, rebuilding bridges, building high-speed rail, and delivering faster internet. —David A. Graham

9:41 p.m. The president's call for new trade promotion authority was a rare line that brought Republicans to their feet. GOP leaders have called on Obama to rally reluctant Democrats behind new trade deals, and the quiet response from his side of the chamber showed why the president’s persuasion is needed. Still, the limited space given to trade—just two paragraphs—probably falls short of the push Republicans wanted. —Russell Berman

9:38 p.m. There's a strong case to be made for shifting government subsidies from four-year universities attended by relatively privileged students to two-year community colleges, where graduating with significant debt is least sustainable. One concern is preventing community colleges from getting trapped in the same amenities race as elite institutions of higher learning. We want to be educating young people, not giving them somewhat nicer quads, athletic centers, and cutting edge computer labs. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:35 p.m. It's interesting that Obama chose paid leave as one of his favorite issues as he rolled this speech out over the last two weeks. The issue reaches many Americans—by Obama's reckoning, 43 million Americans have none—but it's tough to see how the politics help Obama or the Democratic Party. Many of those workers already support Obama; there's no major political movement around it; and it's just the sort of liberal policy that Republicans will reject out of hand as a job-killing redistribution. Is this a sign that Obama is just taking symbolic steps? Or does he see a longer game at play? —David A. Graham

9:34 p.m. Obama is now making his case for free community college. Richard Kahlenberg has explained why this initiative has transformative potential. But Janell Ross sounds a note of caution, pointing out that tuition is only one of many obstacles facing low-income students. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:29 p.m. For the most part, President Obama has structured the beginning of his speech, where he takes credit for past accomplishments, to steer clear of partisan or ideological references. The message: America has bounced back, and everyone—Republicans and Democrats—should be able to cheer. But Republicans aren’t having it, and when Speaker Boehner and much of the party sat on his hands, Obama tried to needle them. “This is good news, people,” he ad-libbed, after reciting a long list of rosy data points. Democrats laughed, and a few cheered, but Boehner didn’t crack a smile. —Russell Berman

9:27 p.m. Obama's phrase for the night is "middle-class economics." Although that's a new term, he's sweeping all of his previous policies—from the economic stimulus to the Affordable Care Act to the Dodd-Frank financial reforms—beneath that single rubric. "These policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way," he said. That last bit feels a bit arch—after all, getting many of those things required bare knuckled fights, and Republicans are still searching for ways to reverse much of this agenda. —David A. Graham

9:23 p.m. The president asks, "will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?" I submit that the story of the United States and its rise has as often been the story of a country that has thrived, and grown wealthier, more populous, and more free, despite the fact that Americans have had radical disagreements about our purpose, as individuals and as a polity. From Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson on down to the present day, the United States has managed to encompass people who are often at cross purposes. This thriving amidst diversity of purpose is a great strength–one seldom recognized in speeches that invoke myths about bygone times of national unity. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:17 p.m. Here's Obama's challenge: Things are looking up across the board, Americans seem to finally be feeling it, but he doesn't seem to get much credit. So leading up to his declaration that "the state of the union is strong," the president kicked off with stat-heavy rundown of what he feels he's accomplished—at home and abroad. —David A. Graham

9:16 p.m. One wonders how long the September 11 terrorist attacks will be the touchstone to begin every major speech. "Tonight, we turn the page," President Obama declared. But I'm betting that near the beginning of next year's State of the Union address, Al Qaeda's attack will once again be the device used to frame our era. —Conor Friedersdorf

9:14 p.m. What sets Obama’s latest State of the Union address apart from the 224 previous speeches? Find out for yourself, using this interactive tool designed by Benjamin M. Schmidt. Click any word in tonight’s speech as Obama delivers it, and see how frequently it’s been used by his predecessors in office. Or find out if, like “bustling,” it’s never been used at all. —Yoni Appelbaum

9:10 p.m. None of President Obama’s State of the Union addresses has been shorter than an hour, but amid so much chatter about the speech’s relevance in the digital age, this one is notably shorter. It weighs in at a comparatively slender 6,493 words, Obama's briefest since his first speech in 2009. Perhaps in a bid to keep viewers tuned in, Obama telegraphs early on that tonight’s address will more thematic, and less a laundry list of proposals. “So tonight, I want to focus less on a checklist of proposals, and focus more on the values at stake in the choices before us,” he will say. Still, as anyone can see in the text posted online, a shorter State of the Union is only concise in relative terms. —Russell Berman

9:04 p.m. With President Obama once again declaring that "our combat mission in Afghanistan is over," some context is in order. Among the "fewer than 15,000 troops" who remain in the country, far away from their families, many face sufficient danger to qualify for combat pay. Their role is to help Afghan soldiers to kill members of the Taliban. And unfortunately, we almost certainly haven't yet seen the last American casualty occur in the country. Under some common understandings of the words, the combat mission in Afghanistan continues. —Conor Friedersdorf

8:57 p.m. Ever since a contretemps with Justice Samuel Alito in 2010—in response to Obama blasting the  Citizens United decision, he mouthed "not true"—the conservative wing of the Supreme Court has been sparse at the State of the Union. This year, as last year, Justices Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are absent. Chief Justice John Roberts, however, is in attendance. —David A. Graham

8:53 p.m. In a departure from previous practice, the Obama administration has posted the full text of the State of the Union to Medium in advance of the speech.  That decision, the White House explained, was part of its "continuing efforts to reach a wide online audience and give people a range of ways to consume the speech." You can read the entire speech here. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:35 p.m. When Obama praises America's "bustling industry" tonight, as he does in the advance excerpts the White House released, he'll be the first president to use the word "bustling" in a State of the Union message. It may have an old-fashioned ring to it, but presidents have managed to steer clear of this particularly hoary cliché for 224 consecutive addresses, a streak Obama will apparently snap tonight. That tidbit from Benjamin M. Schmidt, who produced our interactive analysis of previous State of the Union addresses. —Yoni Appelbaum

8:23 p.m. Since Republicans took over the House in 2010, there's been a predictable cycle to the State of the Union: Obama offers a set of proposals he knows they will reject, and they react with annoyance. But the president's newest troll move is on a different level entirely:

That's the khaki suit Obama busted out for a press conference in August, much to the chagrin of fashion watchers and Representative Pete King: the wardrobe choice that launched a thousand "Audacity of Taupe" and "Yes We Tan" tweets. It's a safe bet he won't actually wear it to the speech—it's not summer, after all—but then again, Obama never has to face voters again, so what does he have to lose? —David A. Graham

8:17 p.m. A favorite State of the Union waiting game is guessing who will be the "designated survivor"—the cabinet secretary who skips the speech to serve as president in case disaster strikes the Capitol. This year's pick is Anthony Foxx, the secretary of transportation and former mayor of Charlotte. Read more about him here. —David A. Graham

8:11 p.m. Although President Obama has disappointed civil libertarians many times with his actions, he has always maintained a rhetorical commitment to ending the War on Terrorism. Just last year, he declared in his State of the Union address, "even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks–through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners–America must move off a permanent war footing." I wonder if tonight he'll reiterate that position or his related 2014 promise to "reform our surveillance programs."

His rhetoric on these subjects will help us determine if he's content to leave national security policies and precedents, as they presently exist, to an as-yet-unknown successor, or whether he still plans to take steps to try to limit what the next Commander-in-Chief can do. —Conor Friedersdorf

8:05 p.m. Republicans have their first political headache of the night, and it came about three hours before the president’s speech was even set to begin.

Steve King, the Iowa conservative and strident foe of immigration reform, took issue with one of President Obama’s invited guests: a 20-year-old named Ana Zamora who benefitted from his executive action shielding so-called Dreamers from deportation. In a tweet, King referred to her as “a deportable” and criticized her seating in a “place of honor” next to the first lady at the State of the Union. Democrats and immigration reform advocates were predictably alarmed but quickly shifted to pointing out that Republican presidential candidates will be courting King’s support when they venture to Iowa in a couple of weeks           —Russell Berman

8:02 p.m. Obama will call on Congress to pass an authorization for the use of military force against ISIS, according to excerpts from the speech released by the White House on Tuesday evening. The president, of course, has already been using quite a bit of military force against Islamic State terrorists for several months, arguing that the resolutions Congress passed after 9/11 still apply. But Obama’s push for explicit authorization is significant because Republicans—and many Democrats—have called for Congress to have a real debate on the new war.  “This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed,” Obama plans to say. “And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.” Speaker John Boehner has previously pledged to help round up Republican votes for such an authorization. The question is how long the authorization will last, and whether it will restrict the use of ground troops—which Obama has ruled out—in the fight against ISIS. Administration officials have already warned Congress against constraining the military, even though Obama has pledged the mission will be limited. —Russell Berman

8 p.m. Welcome to The Atlantic's live coverage of the State of the Union address. President Obama is expected to speak at 9 p.m. We'll have live updates, analysis, and information on Obama's speech as well as the Republican response from Senator Joni Ernst.

The president has taken an unusual tack, rolling out many of his proposals in events around the country over the past few weeks. He wants to raise taxes on the wealthy while reducing taxes for the middle class. He'll also ask Congress to provide two free years of community college to qualifying students, and to institute paid sick and family leave for workers. And he will lay out a slate of programs to improve cybersecurity, both for the government and for consumers. As Russell Berman writes, with most of its content already announced, the biggest questions tonight concern the speech's tone.

Matt Schiavenza explains how Obama's tax plan is intended to address inequality. Russell Berman introduces some of the guests at the speech, and looks at how they reflect the rancorous debate over Cuba. And David Frum argues that the president's real target tonight isn't Congress, but Hillary Clinton, his presumptive successor at the head of the Democratic Party.

While you're waiting, explore the previous 224 State of the Union messages using our two-part interactive package. Take a closer look at the language of the State of the Union, including six key words we expect to hear tonight. And watch the 16,408 mentions of 1,410 different places in previous speeches unfold over time on our interactive map. —Yoni Appelbaum