The second Obama
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CHARLES M. BLOW
Is this the real Barack Obama? I hope so. I like this one. The president used Tuesday's State of the Union address to detail a vision of America's future, and his second term, in which the country is not in perpetual war, government plays an expansive role, Congressional obstruction is named and shamed and he is bold and unapologetically progressive. This is how politicians who needn't worry about re-election look: more like themselves.
The speech was a full-throated rebuke and disavowal of the conservative argument that government must shrink and cower. It was a rebuke of the economic theory that a government's role in revival is to retreat and lift regulations. It was an embrace of the country's growth and diversity and an elevation of those down on their luck. And it was a bring-it-on gesture to the gun lobby and the politicians who fear it.
He aimed much of the speech at a still-struggling middle class, but it was also an open appeal to the poor — those with jobs and without. He proposed an increase in the federal minimum wage — from $7.25 an hour to $9 — and to "tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on." And in what I thought was commendable for a president who has taken some knocks — including from me — for not focusing enough on the poor, he said:
"Tonight, let's also recognise that there are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it is virtually impossible to get ahead. Factory towns decimated from years of plants packing up. Inescapable pockets of poverty, urban and rural, where young adults are still fighting for their first job. America is not a place where chance of birth or circumstance should decide our destiny. And that is why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them."
Many of the president's plans will need to be fleshed out. Some will require Congressional action. But some of what the president proposed can be accomplished through executive action. And this president made clear once again that he would act where he could if Congress refused to act. For instance, he said: "I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."
And the president defied political cowards, some in his own party, and called for a vote on gun control legislation, including an assault weapons ban. The president said: "It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans — Americans who believe in the Second Amendment — have come together around common-sense reform — like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because these police chiefs, they are tired of seeing their guys and gals being outgunned. Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that's your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun."
The president dedicated an extraordinary amount of time to the issue of gun control, and it was the most moving and effective part of the speech. He recognised the hard politics of the issue, but still issued the challenge. He knows well that there are vulnerable Democratic senators in red states who are wary of such a vote, but the president still stood up for what he and most Americans know.
The president said: "This time is different."
I say: this president seems different. He seems more confident and sure. He seems aware of the animus that greets him, but not cowed by it. He seems to have decided to move beyond his political opponents and the pundits and talk directly to the American people. It seems a smart tactical turn: running away from the circus.
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