Obama goes on offense

Story highlights

  • 11 commentators weigh in on the President's State of the Union address
  • Julian Zelizer: Advancing agenda tough in GOP Congress; Maria Cardona, will GOP work with him?
  • Frida Ghitis: He's in denial on foreign policy; LZ: It was a return of the man we elected in 2008

(CNN)CNN asked for views on President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, in which he touted a reviving economy, laid out an agenda aimed at helping the middle class and appealed to Republicans to work across the aisle. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

Julian Zelizer: Good luck getting it past a Republican Congress
Julian Zelizer
President Obama delivered a tough State of the Union address that offered some solace to Democrats who feared he had given up the fight. Most importantly, he put forth a controversial plan to tax wealthier Americans through reforms that close loopholes in order to finance tax cuts for middle class Americans, tapping into the populist sentiment that has driven support for politicians like Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Yet Democrats should not get too excited. Speeches can be moving and they certainly can inspire, but the situation on Capitol Hill remains dire for proponents of liberal reform. Republicans are in firm control of the House and Senate, and the GOP has steadily drifted to the right. Congressional Republicans have proven that they know how to employ procedural tools to obstruct the President's progress.
There are almost no indications that Republicans are preparing to do some sudden about face and begin negotiating with the White House. The tax proposal will most likely get stifled in Congress, or the president will be forced to trade away the increases on the wealthy and end up simply giving tax cuts to all. Hardly the stuff of progressive politics.
The erosion of Democratic strength in Congress since 2010 has been devastating to the party. The Democratic Congress was the driving force behind President Obama's success in his first two years. Even in his most spirited moments, the President has found little room to maneuver. The situation is not any different today. In fact, it is worse.
Republicans are also ready for a fight and, with control of Congress, they'll be able to hit back hard.
Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of the new book, "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society."
---------------
Maria Cardona: Can GOP meet him halfway?
Maria Cardona
Tuesday night, the President delivered a speech that was strong, bold and inspirational. He challenged the Republican Party, but was conciliatory as well. It should have been called the Audacity of Progress. With a new pep in his step and rising poll numbers, President Obama finally talked more freely -- more assertively -- about the economic progress that has been slowly revealing itself to the nation over the past several months.
More importantly, he described how the middle class can partake of that progress; he laid out sensible proposals and tools that the middle class can use-- tripling the Child Care Tax Credit, giving $500 tax credit to couples that work, offering paid sick leave, helping families pay down a mortgage and incentivizing workers to save for retirement.
Many of these are proposals have had GOP support in the past. Can the Republicans finally put politics aside and prove to the nation they have more in their legislative vocabulary than just "no?" Will they reject their well-known, yet destructive path -- that of a party that puts middle class voters, those who need the most, aside, and fights for those at the very top who need the least?
The President laid out the Audacity of Progress and an agenda for the future. For the sake of the nation and the survival of their own party, Republicans should have the audacity to at least meet him halfway.
Maria Cardona is a political commentator for CNN, a Democratic strategist and principal at the Dewey Square Group. She is a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and was communications director for the Democratic National Committee. She also is a former communications director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
---------------
Timothy Stanley: A vain victory lap
Timothy Stanley
What a surreal State of the Union speech that was. What a strange man President Obama can be. His party has suffered a historic defeat in the midterm elections, Islamist terrorism is on the march and his approval ratings remain unimpressive. And yet Obama's speech suggested that he was on top of the world. Celebrating, mocking the opposition, making promises well beyond his capacity to deliver and even pledging to colonize Mars. It was a good speech, well delivered. But it was also pure fantasy.
The economy is not as good as he suggested: the labor force participation rate has fallen to a 36-year low. He wallowed in the suffering of the Russian people thanks to sanctions and then cheered the normalization of relations with Cuba -- one contradiction among many.
Another example of his ability to inhabit two positions at once came when he first appealed for a new, nicer politics and then, in an unscripted remark, reminded the Republicans that he'd won two presidential elections.
But his memory wasn't so great on some issues. The President celebrated gay marriage as a story of freedom and a "civil right." Yet he was opposed to it until just before the last election. And while he reasserted the need for men and women to be paid the same wages, at the White House, differentials persist.
We all know that Obama is a good speaker and, yes, this was a fine speech. But it had elements of self-delusion. The people with the real power are the Republicans. And they won't let Obama treat the next two years like some vain victory lap.
Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the new book "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics."
------------
Frida Ghitis: In denial on foreign policy
Frida Ghitis-Profile-Image
If only President Obama had as valid a reason to gloat about progress on foreign policy as he did on the domestic economy! The president's boasts about success beyond America's borders rang hollow.
"I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership," he said, explaining his strategic calculus.
Just hours before Obama spoke, Iran-backed rebels launched a coup against the U.S.-backed president of Yemen, just on Saudi Arabia's doorstep. Obama did not talk about that, of course. The reality, and Obama knows it, is that the global situation is dire, and it has grown much worse since he took office.
The festering wound at the center of the greatest failure of the Obama administration suppurates from Syria. After promising and repeating his promise to arm moderate rebels, the administration has acted timidly and the result is disaster across the Middle East, spreading to Iraq, reverberating in the streets of Paris, Sydney, Ottawa, and elsewhere.
More than three years after he declared that Syrian President "Assad must go," the crisis has metastasized. Today, international conflicts have left more than 50 million people as refugees, the highest number since World War II. Obama managed to brag about Iraq, a state that nearly spiraled out of existence in recent months as ISIS forces captured its second biggest city and continued their march, capturing large swaths of the country.
On Iran's nuclear program, Obama's strongest words targeted members of Congress considering new sanctions, which he vowed to veto.
And Obama took credit for the Russian economy's collapse, although it is low oil prices that are hurting Vladimir Putin's Russia more than U.S. policies. In fact, the drop in oil will help U.S. foreign policy more than anything.
Obama can take credit for improving relations with Cuba and Burma. But claiming that his presidency has succeeded on the foreign policy front is simply incorrect. He still has two more years to show results -- for the things about which he is already boasting.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis.
-------------
Ruben Navarrette: Hubris isn't the same thing as leadership
Ruben Navarrette-Profile-Image
It was as if President Obama completely missed the outcome of the November election. Someone needs to tell him that his party no longer controls even one house in Congress -- let alone both, as was the case in 2009 to 2011.
In his seventh State of the Union address, Obama was as bold and audacious as ever. He spent the first part of the speech bragging about how his administration had singlehandedly saved the country from prolonged war, decaying values and economic ruin, and the second part laying out a wish list for what he believes still needs to be done in the remaining two years of his presidency to complete the salvation.
Normally, Americans might find this sort of thing refreshing -- i.e., a leader so committed to his principles that he won't waver in the policies, even in the face of growing political opposition.
Yet that's not how this drama comes across. It's not refreshing. It's ridiculous. The President has just suffered a clear repudiation of his policies, and, instead of backing up and recalibrating his strategy for getting things done in a landscape that has changed dramatically, he's doubling down on his bet. That's not leadership. It's hubris. And sadly, the latter is often incompatible with the former.
Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.
--------------
Donna Brazile: A vision to lift the middle class
Donna Brazile-Profile-Image
Last night, the President laid out his vision of progress for the country -- an agenda focused on expanding opportunity for all, fighting for middle class families and moving the country's economy forward. As we heard President Obama say, "At this moment -- with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry and booming energy production -- we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth. It's now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years, and for decades to come."
What we also saw clearly was that Democrats and Republicans have two very different ideas about what we want that future to look like.
This country has tried trickle-down economics and it failed, leaving many Americans behind with policies that favored the richest among us. Economic policies that are rooted in the middle class work, and they ensure that everyone is able to benefit from this recovery. But still, Republicans continue to fight for only those at the very top and big corporations, which coincidentally are in line with their own financial and political self-interest.
While the President offered his vision for the country -- expanding opportunity -- where "everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules," Republicans have shown time and again that they aren't interested in fighting for shared opportunity for all. Just look at their striking refusal tonight to applaud things like access to education, affordable child care or paid sick leave.
The President has one more SOTU to deliver. Let's hope that next year, both parties will find something to cheer about with regards to an improving economy for all.
-------------
Aaron David Miller: Still risk-averse in a dangerous world
Aaron David Miller
Unfortunately, a President who'd like to focus on the middle class can't escape the Middle East.
Unlike last year's State of the Union speech, in which the President declared that "America must move off a permanent war footing," this time he couldn't downplay the challenges that America faces in the broken angry, dysfunctional Middle East. Recent jihadi terror attacks and plots in France and Belgium; the Houthi takeover of much of Yemen (which President Obama had held up as a model of counterterrorism last September); and ISIS's successes in Syria and Iraq simply wouldn't allow it.
But make no mistake. When it comes to the Middle East, this President remains broadly risk-averse. His remarks on foreign policy were more about continuity than change.
Sure, the President proposed to negotiate a new Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) with Congress. But if the language in tonight's speech is an indication, such a new authorization will be quite consistent with what the United States is already doing -- training and equipping local allies and relying on air power rather than large numbers of U.S. forces.
Sure, he talked tough on combating jihadi terrorists. But he will do this through what the President called "smart leadership," i.e. focused counterterrorism instead of his predecessor's nation-building and deployment of thousands of ground forces .
And, sure, he's rightly proud of the tough sanctions regime that brought Iran to the negotiating table on its nuclear program. But as he indicated tonight, he'll resist any congressional effort on new sanctions, let alone force, until it's clear that diplomacy has failed.
Rhetoric notwithstanding, the President remains extricator-in-chief -- determined to reduce America's Middle East profile and to get the U.S. out of long and profitless old wars into new ones.
Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter.
--------------
Paul Begala: The mojo returns
Paul Begala-Profile-Image
Barack Obama sure didn't look like a man whose party just got whipped in the midterm election a few weeks ago. He was powerfully confident, deeply optimistic and relentlessly, proudly progressive. He justly saluted our troops, bringing both parties to their feet. But from there he drove hard at an economic agenda beloved by Democrats and loathed by Republicans. He declared that, "the verdict is clear. Middle class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don't get in the way."
The President put the GOP on their heels, pushing an agenda targeted at the heart of the middle class - especially those working women who are the base of his party: tax fairness, child care, maternity leave, pay equity, raising the minimum wage and reducing the cost of community college "to zero."
With millions of new jobs, gas below $2.50 a gallon, wages finally starting to rise and the deficit falling, America has regained its mojo. So has the American President.
Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He is a consultant to the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action.
--------------
Tara Setmayer: Obama reverts to big government freebies
Tara Setmayer
Filled with grandiose rhetoric and recycled themes, the President's speech amounted to nothing more than a campaign rally masquerading as a State of the Union address with fresh ideas that did little to distract from his impotent foreign policy and economic failures here at home. I am referring here, for instance to an abysmal 62.7% labor participation rate (a 36-year low), and stagnant wages for American workers.
Wildfires of conflict and terrorism are raging worldwide on President Obama's watch. From the meteoric rise and hegemonic ambitions of the brutal Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to the proliferation of radical Islamic attacks against our allies, to the continued aggression of Russia in Ukraine, coupled with Iran's unencumbered march toward obtaining a nuclear weapon, the absence of definitive American leadership from the White House is palpable, and a clear projection of weakness.
According to a recently released Pew Poll, for the first time in five years, 76% of Americans believe defending the U.S. against terrorism should be the top policy priority. Yet the President virtually brushed past it without providing anything substantive discussion of national security.
Instead he reverted to his bread and butter. Campaign style promises of big government freebies at taxpayers expense and policy prescriptions laced with themes of class warfare.
The President listed a series of things he "wanted" for the American people as he enters the twilight of his term and proclaimed it's time to "turn the page." In a democratic republic, what the President wants should not supersede the authority of the Constitution or the will of the American people. They've already turned the page, repudiating the President's policies at the ballot box last November, and giving Republican governance a chance.
Tara Setmayer is former communication's director for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and a CNN Political Commentator.
---------------
Raul Reyes: Cuba a foreign policy bright spot
Raul A. Reyes
Optimism wins. That was the message at the heart of President Obama's surprisingly moving State of the Union speech last night. He laid out his policy priorities, yet he did so while appealing to the "basic decency of American values, not our basic fears." He could have taken an in-your-face victory gap, given his rising poll numbers and favorable economic news.
Instead he showed grace as he laid out his vision for the next two years. He even tailored parts of his message to appeal to conservative talking points -- noting that he wanted all Americans to contribute to and share in our country's success.
Cuba was the country that merited the most mentions in tonight's speech, and Obama's mention of his administration restoring diplomatic ties there drew some of the loudest applause of the night. The President laid it out so simply: "When what you're doing doesn't work for 50 years, it's time to do something new."
The contrast between his willingness to forge greater connection with the Cuban people contrasted sharply with the TV images of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) glowering in his seat. Nor did the president miss the chance to remind Congress that it should begin the work of ending the embargo -- a position supported by a clear majority of Americans.
Most impressively, the president touched on our country's most contentious issues -- immigration, women's reproductive rights and race relations -- by noting that they had the potential to be unifying issues. This was as personally inspiring as it was politically masterful. The President stood strong in his belief that we are, indeed, the United States.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes
LZ Granderson: Emboldened and delivering good news
Lz Granderson-Profile-Image
President Obama delivered arguably his best State of the Union address since the first one he made. It was not only passionate but it delivered moments of humor and more importantly -- good news. For the first time he said, "the State of the Union is strong" something many Americans are still slow to feel and Democratic candidates in November failed to bring up.
The unemployment rate is down, more than 150,000 American troops are home and 10 million more Americans have health insurance than did when Obama took office. He was optimistic and he had the metrics to support it, especially on his domestic policy. And while no one believes all of the proposals he outlined will fly unharmed through the new Republican Congress, there appeared to be enough bipartisan morsels mentioned to challenge the idea that the two parties won't get anything done.
Like trade. Like getting new authorization to use force against ISIS. Like legislation to encourage companies to hire veterans. But the crowning moments of his speech were the last three minutes or so. This is when Obama showed again the man who won the presidency and re-election in historic fashion.
He defended religious freedom and included Muslims in that conversation. He repeatedly spoke about equality for LGBT people and pointed out 7 out of 10 Americans live in states where same-sex marriage is legal. He brought up the racial tension in Ferguson, the concern for safety with our police force and again replaced the notion of a red America and a blue America with one of the United States of America -- something he did when he first burst onto the scene in 2004 at the Democrat National Convention in Boston.
At the end I found myself asking, "Didn't the Democrats lose in November?" Wasn't Obama rebuked in an election where the Senate flipped from Democratic to Republican?
And yet, there he was. Confident. Emboldened. Optimistic. Something we haven't seen in quite some time. But then again, the country has not had some of the positive economic numbers it currently boasts in quite some time either. Democrats in November fumbled the good domestic news. Obama in January did not.
LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor, a senior writer for ESPN and a lecturer at Northwestern University. He is a former Hechinger Institute fellow, and his commentary has been recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.
--