WHEN THE history of the Obama administration is written, the 2014 State of the Union address won’t get much attention. But it marked a shift nonetheless. After seeking to inspire Congress with soaring ambition, goad it along with complex proposals, and scold it to the point of shame, President Obama Tuesday night tried something new: acceptance. “If Congress wants to help,” he said in a discussion of what his administration was preparing to do unilaterally to promote job training, “you can concentrate on funding proven programs that connect more ready-to-work Americans with ready-to-be-filled jobs.” The president isn’t holding his breath.
But nor was he just standing by. He offered a handful of useful economic proposals that don’t require congressional action, including, most intriguingly, an effort to extend Roth IRA-type savings to middle-class families. And he clearly hoped that a less contentious, less demanding tone would give House Republicans the political space to enact immigration reform, a compromise on the minimum wage, and perhaps a few other longstanding priorities.
Indeed, if the challenges discussed by Obama — job training, covering the uninsured, expanding retirement savings — felt a little familiar, they also reflected the reality of the moment: A centrist agenda is already on the table, and this year’s challenge is reducing partisan rancor enough to get a few priorities addressed. To that end, Obama’s speech was among the least partisan of his tenure. He even tried to put today’s political divisions in a kinder historical light: An argument over the appropriate size of the federal government, of the type that has dominated recent discourse, “is an important debate — one that dates back to our very founding.”
Dense with anecdotes of average people’s struggles and their plucky solutions, this State of the Union was perhaps the most pragmatic Obama has ever delivered. It was scaled to the diminished expectations of the moment. That marks a comedown from the heights of last year’s re-election-emboldened exhortation to action. But it felt realistic and, perhaps, reassuring. The economy is improving. The deficit is coming down. A year of quiet steps forward would be far more welcome than another year of self-inflicted harm.