There were a lot of head-scratchers in Tuesday’s State of the Union.
First, the address carried little in the way of surprises for anyone who’s been keeping tabs on the news.
This was not because Obama did not propose anything exciting. Rather, it was because Obama had announced all of his truly interesting talking points—free two-year community college, universal seven days sick leave, a series of tax cuts on the middle class and tax hikes on the upper class—in a lecture tour in the preceding weeks.
One could speculate as to the reasons for this choice: plummeting television ratings mean Obama could create more hype with a series of announcements that would each generate substantial internet buzz; or perhaps Obama wanted to steal the national spotlight from the first few weeks of a congress dominated by Republicans (idea courtesy Politico’s Kendall Breitman).
Add to all of this how bizarrely idealistic Obama’s proposals were. Free two-year community college could not have passed in the split Congress of the last two years; it’s a pipe dream in the new Republican-dominated Congress.
Obama renewed the promises from his 2008 campaign that he had never delivered upon: closing down Guantanamo Bay and ending CIA torture. He even shoved in a reference to that solar roadway meme you’ve probably seen on Facebook (an earnest engineering project, true, but one that is a long way from being realized, particularly from a political perspective).
Obama was not setting the agenda for the next two years of legislation (as is ostensibly the purpose of the State of the Union). Obama is a lame duck with a congress that has no intention of helping him.
No, what Obama was doing was bigger. He was setting the Democratic party’s agenda for the future.
Imagine Hillary Clinton visiting a college on the campaign trail a year from now. A member of the audience raises her hand. This woman is a member of the generation of internet natives at which Obama no doubt directed the staggered press releases. (She is also acutely aware of how much college costs.)
She asks Clinton if Clinton will work to pass Obama’s free two-year college plan. Clinton is now in a position where she must choose between alienating this young, probably pro-Democrat voter and adopting some form of Obama’s position.
It’s an overly simplistic illustration, yes, but I think the principle still holds. Obama’s ideas in this State of the Union will frame the debate in the upcoming presidential election.
But will people still remember this speech by the 2016 election? If any State of the Union was made to stick around in people’s minds for a year or two, it was this one, with its newsfeed-grabbing advance announcements and its hyperbolic talking points. Obama is working on his legacy.