When I flopped down on a friend’s couch to watch the State of the Union address with my pizza and Diet Coke, I’ll admit that I didn’t have high hopes for this particular address. As a lifelong Democrat, I fervently supported the president’s first campaign — proudly donning my Obama T-shirt and phone-banking in my free time — but my enthusiasm waned as the days following his inauguration ticked by. I know I wasn’t the only person feeling this way. But this year’s State of the Union address marked a turning point for President Obama and inspired me just as much as his words during his presidential campaign.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama was the master of crafting a narrative that cut straight to the core of how the electorate felt. But once in office, his talent for communication did not extend as far when attempting to explain his administration’s policies. For example, President Obama lost the battle over public option in health care reform largely because he was unable to explain exactly why this policy, which appeared minor in the context of the gargantuan overhaul, was a critical part of fulfilling our duty to each other as fellow Americans to ensure that every citizen’s basic needs are met. Obama was less successful in showing how his policies were critical pieces that fit together to construct the puzzle that constituted his overarching vision of change and togetherness, which was his campaign’s primary message.
Although media pundits prematurely assumed that President Obama would use the State of the Union as an extended campaign stump, this was certainly not the case. Not only did he introduce bold new initiatives, including measures regarding education and taxes, he managed to solidify for the first time the connection between his individual policies and his overarching vision of change and togetherness.
Regarding education, the president said that “at a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July,” and instructed Congress to “extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves middle-class families thousands of dollars.” The president tied this in with the message that Americans “understood they were part of something larger, that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share — the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college and put a little away for retirement.” This slight alteration in Obama’s message, though subtle, is crucial to developing the same popular support for the Obama administration’s policies that the candidate enjoyed in the election.
President Obama also introduced his “Buffett rule” tax reform using rhetoric of commonality that harkened back to the 2008 campaign. This policy would establish a 30 percent minimum tax rate for millionaires, reforming the current system in which millionaires often pay a lower tax rate than many middle-class families. Obama tied this proposal to the theme of unity by saying that affluent Americans “know that this generation’s success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to their country’s future, and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility.” After this tumultuous year of Occupy protests and upheaval over income inequality in this country, it was refreshing to see the president explicate how his policy proposal allows us to overcome the divisions on which the Occupy movement shed much-needed light.
I’ll be completely honest: Obama’s speech didn’t make me want to jump up from the couch and yell, “Yes we can!” However, it gave me a deeper conviction that his policies put the United States on the correct path for the future. In light of the messy Republican primary season, we’ve seen what could happen if we backslide away from the progress we have made in the last three years. I, for one, will do my part to ensure that Barack Obama has the chance to put the rest of the policy puzzle together in a second term and thus realize the dream of change and unity that he shared with us in 2008. Will you join me?
Mia Hodge is a student at UC Berkeley and is the communications director for the Cal Berkeley Democrats.