Law and Public Policy

Obama Offers Way to Regain Trust of the American People

January 29, 2014  • Dan Glickman

In response to last night’s State of the Union address, Aspen Institute program directors are reacting to President Barack Obama’s promises to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the nation today. Below, Dan Glickman, executive director of the Aspen Institute Congressional Program responds to the president’s concurrent messages of bipartisanship and efficiency. 

Last night, the president delivered a very effective, yet not particularly grandiose, speech. He set out a rather modest and, perhaps, more achievable set of proposals focused in particular on improving the economic situation for lower- and middle-class Americans.

The president’s tone was strong and his commitment to use executive orders to circumvent Congress and enact policy was clear. The reluctance of “first-term” President Obama to assert himself has vanished, and that is good to see. A divided and often dysfunctional Washington needs strong executive leadership to get anything done.

This speech was not overly partisan. Of course the president was a bit sarcastic in criticizing House Republicans for voting more than 40 times to repeal his signature achievement, but a more telling moment was when the president praised the by-the-bootstrap rise of John Boehner, the son of a barkeeper who became Speaker of the House. Paying a compliment to Speaker Boehner, who stood to salute the cheering legislators as the president delivered this line, was a great way to bring a bit of bipartisan levity to a political system marred by dysfunction and partisanship.

By far the most memorable moment of this speech was the tribute to Sgt. Remsburg, an Army Ranger who suffered a brain injury on his 10th deployment. The president said, “we have to get off this permanent war footing” while honoring a man who enlisted and re-enlisted 10 times under the most extraordinary circumstances. It was a powerful reminder of patriotism and civic responsibility.

It’s understandable that the president didn’t swing for the fences with this speech. Last year was frustrating for President Obama. He failed to accomplish any of the top goals — like gun control and immigration reform — that he laid out in his State of the Union speech 350 days ago. As Daniel Burnham, the Chicago architect once said, “make no little plans, for they do not have the power to stir men’s souls.”

The country desperately needs a big plan, but by aiming small, perhaps the president and Congress can build enough trust to think big.