It’s good to be the president of the United States.
That’s the big lesson from the State of the Union Address – his sixth – that Barack Obama delivered Tuesday night.
Just 11 weeks after his Democratic Party got shellacked in the 2014 midterm election, Obama in his hour-long speech showed the power of the presidency.
No public official in this country has a bigger microphone than the president of the United States. No one can command the nation’s attention – and thus set the terms for a national discussion – as effectively as the commander-in-chief can.
Obama used that big microphone to push a Republican Party that now controls both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate into rejecting measures popular with significant voting blocs.
He spoke of providing affordable child care. He talked about making community college education free – and, in a deft rhetorical touch, linked his plan to free high schools and the GI Bill. And he said that 10 million Americans who did not have health coverage before have it now – and he not so subtly reminded those 10 million Americans that Republicans had voted again and again to take that coverage away.
Women voters? Check. Working families? Check. Young people just reaching voting age? Check. Middle-class Americans fearful about the future? Check.
All in all, it was less a status report on the country’s policies than it was a call to arms.
In that way, the speech was an acknowledgement of the tidal patterns of American politics. The country now finds itself buffeted and rocked by waves that advance and retreat in predictable patterns.
Republicans gain ground in off-year, non-presidential elections when voter turnout is low and the GOP’s more disciplined and determined activist bases give the party a significant edge. Democrats respond in presidential years when their larger, but less committed base can be motivated to pay attention.
The president’s State of the Union was a bugle call designed to signal to all the parts of the emerging Democratic Party coalition that it was time to report for duty.
The Republican response wasn’t as effective, but it really couldn’t be. Newly elected Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, delivered a refreshingly earnest recitation of Republican values, but she couldn’t compete with the majesty of a speech delivered from the well of the House with the entire power structure of the United States in attendance.
Both Obama and Ernst offered entreaties to the other side to cooperate, but, in each case, those entreaties were pro forma and as sincere as a promise that the check’s in the mail.
Maybe that’s as it should be. These two political parties have significant ideological differences and neither has demonstrated in any meaningful way a willingness or ability to compromise or find common ground.
If they can’t work together, then one or the other will have to win a huge victory to bring an end to the age of gridlock.
What’s likely to emerge now is a kind of chess match. Republicans in Congress will try to maneuver the president into opposing – and even vetoing – measures that will energize the GOP’s base. And Obama will try to use that big microphone to put the GOP on record opposing measures popular with large swaths of the American public.
In this continuing conflict, Obama likely will have the edge, for several reasons.
The first is that the nation’s political tidal patterns now move in his – and his party’s – direction for the next two years.
The second is that, now that Democrats no longer control any part of Congress and thus do not have to move an agenda, the president can speak with one voice and a clear message while Republicans cannot.
And that leads to the third and most significant reason. Because they have that big microphone, presidents are like bears. Even when they’re wounded – and maybe especially when they’re wounded – they’re dangerous in a fight.
That’s why it’s good to be the president of the United States.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.