Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Obama soars no more

  • Print

U.S. President Barack Obama's state of the union address Tuesday, the first of his second term, won't be long remembered. It didn't offer much in the way of new ideas. It was short on memorable lines -- except, perhaps, his demand for congressional action on gun control because Gabby Giffords and the families of Newtown "deserve a vote."

But those are all good things. They tell us that after four years in the White House and a hard-won re-election, Obama has re-calibrated his ambitions to match the moment. A president who once promised to transform American politics and stop the oceans' rise has downsized his goals, not because he wanted to but because circumstance has made it necessary.

A soaring speech full of ambitious new goals wouldn't make sense in the Washington of 2013. Obama still faces a hostile Republican majority in the House and a forbidding deficit that limits the amount of money he can spend.

He's already proposed two big new agenda items for his second term: immigration reform and gun control. (They're actually old ideas, but it's been so long since they were debated in Congress, they seem new again.) If the president makes real headway on them and keeps the economy from stalling, his next two years at least will look like a success.

The main theme of the speech was jobs. (He's for them.) But his economic proposals were relatively modest and mostly recycled. Even the cover design for his economic plan was recycled from last year's state of the union handout.

It may have sounded as if Obama was calling for a massive array of new federal initiatives, but on closer inspection, they are mostly micro-initiatives.

He promised limited executive actions to reduce greenhouse gases, not the far-reaching legislation he once sought to stem climate change. He asked Congress to pass a law making it easier for homeowners to refinance their mortgages, but the idea faces long odds in the House. He called for a new infrastructure-funding plan, but it was a downsized version of one he proposed in 2011.

Other ideas came with an even longer pedigree. The proposal to increase the minimum wage to $9? Downsized from the $9.50 proposal of the 2008 campaign. Universal preschool, without a mention of how it would be funded? Again, the 2008 campaign.

As one of the president's aides told me: They were good ideas before; they're good ideas now.

Especially the ones about jobs. "A growing economy that creates good middle-class jobs -- that must be the North Star that guides our efforts," he said.

Fair enough. But both parties see the same North Star; the problem is they insist on taking different paths to pursue it.

Obama didn't solve that problem Tuesday. He exhorted Republicans (for the umpteenth time) to adopt his solution to the impending crisis over automatic spending cuts: closing tax loopholes that benefit "the well-off and well-connected." In return, he offered to support modest reforms in Medicare, an offer he has also made before.

And, significantly, he contended that a modest amount of deficit reduction is all we need. In 2011 and 2012, the president spent weeks trying to strike an ambitious multi-trillion-dollar "grand bargain" over taxes and spending with House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. But on Tuesday, Obama whittled that down: Another $1.5 trillion and we're done. His downsized goals may be easier to reach, for Congress and himself. But deficit hawks are furious.

There was important foreign policy in the speech, too, a sign that like most second-term presidents facing a difficult Congress, Obama is discovering the rewards of acting as diplomat-in-chief.

He promised to bring home half of the 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by next year, and the other half a year later. He called for a free-trade agreement with Europe, a goal that sounds boring but could turn out to be the most historic proposal in the speech. And he said he would work to negotiate new nuclear-arms reductions with Russia, a measure that, not incidentally, could save real money.

Second terms are often disastrous, and they sometimes fall afoul of a president's conviction that re-election gave him a mandate to do big things.

George W. Bush used the first state of the union address of his second term to call for the partial privatization of Social Security; the collapse of that effort was an early sign his presidency was in trouble. Bill Clinton opened his second term with ambitious goals for education and entitlement reforms that went nowhere. He spent much of his remaining tenure battling impeachment instead.

Obama has set more realistic targets. If he meets the most significant of them -- immigration reform, even modest steps on gun control, an end to the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan, a free-trade agreement with Europe and, oh yes, implementation of Obamacare -- and manages to keep the economy growing, even if slowly, that's not a bad list. Plenty of two-term presidents have done worse.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los

Angeles Times.

-- The Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 14, 2013 A15

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Selinger addresses stadium lawsuit

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A monarch butterfly looks for nectar in Mexican sunflowers at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Monday afternoon-Monarch butterflys start their annual migration usually in late August with the first sign of frost- Standup photo– August 22, 2011   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Hay bales sit under a rainbow just west of Winnipeg Saturday, September 3, 2011.(John Woods/Winnipeg Free Press)

View More Gallery Photos


Are you concerned about the number of homicides so far this year?

View Results

Ads by Google