President Obama will end his years in office as the most liberal president since Nixon. But while the president frames the argument well, making this economy work for working people once more will take far bolder reforms. His years may mark the beginning of a new era of progressive reform, but only if people in motion force the argument.
The speech is, after all, called the State of the Union, not the State of the World. So perhaps President Barack Obama can be excused for dwelling on the American economy in his remarks Tuesday night, and all but ignoring the economic and political crises of the planet. There was lots of talk about how the U.S. has come back from the Great Recession, and about the president's plan (which the Republican-dominated Congress is likely to reject) to use new government programs and tax cuts to make up for the troubling stagnation of middle-class wages. But however assertive Obama was about the durability and creativity of the U.S. economy, he had little to say about global matters -- from economics to terrorism to the environment.
Tonight, the president rallied the nation to challenge an economic system that has ill-served regular Americans for far too long. Senator Warren, and the grassroots movement she has so inspired, helped make that possible, by showing that at this time in American history, such a battle cry would could take wing. Tonight was their triumph, too.
As Obama began speaking, a key uncertainty remained: What balance would he strike between the desire to shape the political terrain for 2016 and the imperatives of governing in 2015? The former required bold initiatives, of a kind likely to evoke sharply negative reactions from Republicans who command majorities in both the House and the Senate. But successful legislating this year will require compromise with those very majorities. Could he thread the needle, making the Democratic political case for next year without undermining the possibility of legislative progress this year?