"Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans," President Obama declared in his first inaugural address. But, he continued, "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply."
On Tuesday night, five years after he was sworn into office promising transformational change, Obama delivered a State of the Union speech recognizing both implicitly, and at times, explicitly, that the political arguments still consuming Washington would prevent him from winning any significant domestic policy victories for the remainder of his presidency.
Gone was the idea that the power of his personality and the magnitude of the moment would fundamentally change American politics, allowing him to enact a vast liberal agenda. This isn't going to be an era of bold new infrastructure projects on the scale of the interstate highway system; green energy isn't going to be this generation's equivalent of landing a man on the moon; the nation won't be interconnected with a high-speed rail network; there won't be sweeping new legislation to reduce carbon emissions.
Instead, Obama distilled his vision into a series of small-bore ideas he's mostly presented before on ending tax loopholes, creating manufacturing hubs, increasing the minimum wage, and improving job training, among others. Though he urged Congress to act on these priorities (along with immigration, climate change, unemployment insurance, and universal preschool), he did so without much expectation that anything would pass through a Congress in which Republicans control the House of Representatives. He couldn't even muster up much passion to deliver his ritual indignant scoldings of GOP intransigence. Instead, he has resigned himself to bypassing Congress and taking limited executive actions where he can.
There is an important caveat to this analysis. Through his re-election, Obama was able to ensure that his signature legislative accomplishment, his health care law, would be implemented. And that's no small feat. It was easily the most significant legislative victory by a Democratic president since President Johnson enacted Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. Despite the rocky roll-out, now that the law is in place, it is unlikely to ever be fully -- or even mostly -- repealed.
If Obama was going to get anything major accomplished in his second term, it would have happened last year, when he was coming off a re-election victory. Instead, his major pushes for immigration reform and restrictions on gun rights went down in flames, the latter issue barely getting a mention on Tuesday.
Obama's State of the Union speech was an acknowledgement that he has reached the twilight of his presidency. Any major domestic accomplishments are already behind him, and the best he can hope for during the remainder of his second term is securing the policy gains he made in his first.