In 50 minutes last night, the president of the United States used his first speech to a joint session of Congress as a launching point, a chance to transform the bulk of his entire campaign platform into the core of a bold first year agenda. In one of his most compelling arguments to date, he laid out a blueprint going forward, rich with clarity and powered by an ever-accruing political capital.
What was most impressive about the speech was not its cadence and tone, but the framing used to sell its contents. Obama couched his unabashedly progressive agenda as critical to the country's long term economic future. Where President Clinton became famous for taking Republican ideas and wrapping them in Democratic arguments, President Obama called for some of the most liberal policies in a generation, and did so using the voice of a fiscal conservative.
He argued that investments in education were critical if the next generation is expected to compete in a global economy. He saw health care reform as critical relief to businesses that are buckling under the weight of providing for their employees in a badly broken system. And he argued that renewable energy policy was a national security issue, not an environmental one.
The president seems to recognize, as Lyndon Johnson did some 45 years ago, that there is exceptional power behind the mandate he's been given. Johnson knew, upon taking office, that he could use the legacy of President Kennedy to push through a bold new program, but that such a mandate might recede at a moments notice. So he asked his advisers to "push ahead full-tilt" and, in doing so, sparked the political flame that would ultimately have him sign into law the most sweeping legislative program since FDR's New Deal.
Obama, too, sees that the scope of his crisis is wide enough to drive a revolutionizing agenda through it, but that his time may be limited. With sky-high popularity, a self-destructing opposition, and a hulking majority in Congress, he understands the opportunity before him.
And so, he has called for health care reform by the end of the year; a sweeping energy policy, equipped with a cap and trade system and major increase in renewables; a substantial investment in education; an expansion of veteran's benefits and a restoration of civil liberties; an overhaul of regulations; an unprecedented level of transparency, and an end to the war in Iraq.
He knows what recent polls have told all of us - that the American people want the policies they voted for in November, that they want him to clear the hurdles put in his way by the Republicans, that they want Republicans to work with Obama, as long as the result is the Obama policy. They want him to have his chance.
If he succeeds, if at year end, all Americans have access to health care, if the economy is moving toward recovery, driven by renewable energy construction and technological innovation, if homeowners are saved from foreclosure and banks returned to stability, if new classrooms are built and new investments made in education, then by year end, President Obama will have fathered his own Great Society, and in record time.