Delivering his State of the Union message to the new Republican-controlled Congress Tuesday night, an upbeat and forceful President Obama signaled that rather than retreating in the wake of Republican victories in last November's election he intends to use the remainder of his second term to push hard for a progressive agenda on behalf of the nation's working people.
"Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?" he asked the packed chamber of the House.
The president made an impassioned plea to GOP lawmakers who are against his longstanding proposal to raise the federal minimum wage: "And to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise."
In no uncertain terms the president made it clear that unions are critical to the process of restoring fairness. "To give working families a fair shot," he declared, "We will still need more employers to see beyond next quarter's earnings and recognize that investing in their workforce is in their company's long term interest. We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions, and give American workers a voice."
"The president's focus on raising wages through collective bargaining, better paying jobs, a fairer tax code, fair overtime rules, and expanded access to education and earned leave sent the right message at the right time," AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said in a statement. "We thank the president for his passion and advocacy. We are ready to see what he and Congress will do about it. That is the ultimate standard of accountability."
Women's groups too have been hailing the speech. What the president had to say about childcare is one of the things they liked.
"During World War II, when men like my grandfather went off to war, having women like my grandmother in the workforce was a national security priority," Obama said. "So this country provided universal childcare. In today's economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever. It's not a nice-to-have - it's a must-have. It's time we stopped treating childcare as a side issue, or a women's issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us."
"From child care to paid sick days to fair pay to overtime to the minimum wage, and much more, the president laid out an agenda that would, indeed, make a huge and meaningful difference for America's families," said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.
The president called for massive programs to rebuild the nation's infrastructure and blasted Republicans for their shortsightedness in this area. "Twenty-first century businesses need 21st century infrastructure," he declared. "Modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains, and the fastest Internet. Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this. So let's set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let's pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create thirty times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come."
Obama also went on the offensive against climate change deniers, saying, "I've heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they're not scientists; that we don't have enough information to act. Well, I'm not a scientist, either. But you know what? I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we'll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe."
On foreign policy the president asked the Congress for a resolution authorizing the use of force against ISIS but emphasized the need for diplomacy and avoiding military conflicts whenever possible. He vowed to veto any attempt by Republican lawmakers to levy new sanctions against Iran while negotiations to reduce tensions with that country continue.
He castigated right wing opponents of his new policy of openness toward Cuba and called on Congress to lift the economic embargo against that nation. "In Cuba," he declared, "we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you're doing doesn't work for 50 years, it's time to try something new."
By going on the offense last night President Obama appears to have made gains on a number of critical issues. NBC polling shows 73 percent of the public viewed the speech favorably.
Even more interesting, however, were surveys by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner that involved online dial testing with 61 white swing voters across the United States and two follow-up online focus groups - one with white non-college educated men and women and one with unmarried women.
The president's personal favorability improved from a neutral rating (44 percent warm, 44 percent cool) to a net 33 (66 percent warm, 33 percent cool), the largest post-State of the Union shift seen for a president in recent years.
In the focus groups afterward the voters noted that the president was stronger, more confident, and more relaxed than they have seen him recently and that they liked his positive views. In contrast to the deep partisan divide in the November elections there was little polarization between Democrats and Republicans throughout the speech, with the Republican dials at or above 50 percent for most of the president's address.