Skip to main content

Obama's message: 'I'm in charge'

By David Rothkopf, Special to CNN
updated 10:28 AM EST, Thu February 14, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf: With this State of the Union speech, Obama returned to work of governing
  • He says Obama's manner was confident, purposeful, sent message to fellow politicians
  • He focused on economy, investing in Americans: jobs, energy, education, immigration
  • Rothkopf: Obama remarks taking on gun lobby showed his new vigor as empowered advocate

Editor's note: David Rothkopf is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

(CNN) -- It is sometimes said of a great actor that he could hold an audience spellbound while reading a laundry list. This is essentially what President Obama tried to do on Tuesday night. As State of the Union addresses go, his was artless. It lacked inspired phrases or compelling narrative. Save for the energy he gave it at key moments, it was pedestrian.

It was also very important.

It was important because with it, Obama returned in earnest to the work of governing. Having won a clear victory in November, and having spent the intervening months putting out the wildfires our Congress likes to set, he delivered word Tuesday night that he had a clear and full agenda for his second term.

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

Candidate Obama, the man who has dominated American politics for most of the last five years, seems gone for good. That version of our president may have had more poetry about him. But this version wants to actually get down to governing.

Opinion roundup: How did Obama and Rubio do?

Whether he can or not remains to be seen. Indeed, it seems certain that many, if not most, of the goals he set on Tuesday night will elude him. But the speech was also important because it sent several clear messages to his fellow politicians.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



He said, "I won. I am in charge. I will not shy away from a progressive agenda."

He said, "I know what I want. I'm not afraid of defeat as I was in the past. I will never run in another political campaign again."

Oh, he didn't say these things literally. You won't find those words in the transcript. But look at the tape -- you'll find them in his body language and between the lines of his speech.

The economy was his centerpiece -- but it was not just another campaign speech about growth. It was a speech about, as one of his team put it earlier in the day, "growing the economy from the middle out." He spoke about restoring the middle class and creating opportunity. From the beginning it was clear that this was no longer a speech about recovering from a crisis. It was not another speech about America at war. Obama's concern -- the crisis he was addressing -- was that incomes and job creation are stagnant even as the economy grows and corporate profits hit record levels.

His prescription was clear. We must invest in America and in its people. In infrastructure, domestic energy resources, cleaner energy and energy efficiency, education, research and building the workforce through immigration reform. Obama called for raising the minimum wage to help lift up the poorest and better reward those among them who are willing to work for a living. He also sounded the theme that we must do all these things to better compete in the global economy, citing the examples of China, Germany and others whose examples he said we should heed and exceed.

Even the portion of his speech that dealt with foreign policy was oriented to the domestic economy. Yes, he began with the newsworthy announcement that he would bring home half of all troops in Afghanistan by next year and end our war there the following year. Yes, he talked about defeating al Qaeda even as it shape-shifted its way around the world. And he addressed drone oversight, North Korea's nuclear test, Iran's nuclear program and the Middle East.

State of the Union address (Part 1)
State of the Union address (Part 2)
Rubio's water break a big hit online
Rep. Paul Ryan reacts to SOTU Address

But many of his statements on these issues were formulaic. And the thrust of all of them -- even the boldest, like his return to his Prague promise of working to reduce nuclear stockpiles -- was enabling America to focus more energy on rebuilding its strength at home. Furthermore, perhaps the most important international thrusts had nothing to do with war at all. (His comments on cyberthreats, for example, were really directed at protecting intrusions against the private sector.)

Opinion: Obama dares Congress to get the job done

Obama's renewed focus on climate, including his call for "market-based" solutions -- meaning reopening the idea of carbon markets or other such mechanisms, a couple of years after such ideas were considered by many to be dead -- was a return to promises made long ago. It was also a recognition of the urgency with which this global threat must be addressed. His new secretary of state, John Kerry, was the leading voice in the Senate on these issues and has already told his staff how important these and other environmental concerns would be. This issue was raised early in the speech, even though it is clearly something requiring global cooperation. It was an important shift of emphasis.

Similarly, perhaps the biggest new foreign policy initiative Obama called for was opening of talks to achieve a trans-Atlantic trade agreement. This is a powerful idea that could be the centerpiece of second-term international economic policy. It would further enhance trade with the European Union, strengthen our Atlantic alliance and set the stage for its modernization in the 21st century, and open the way for a new global round of trade talks. And finally, since agricultural trade reform is so central to big emerging powers like Brazil and India, it would help strengthen our relations with them.

Of all the elements of the speech, however, the most compelling and emotional was Obama's concluding section demanding a vote on reforming America's gun laws. Citing gun deaths in his hometown, Chicago, with the victims of violence in the gallery watching him, he demonstrated his newfound confidence by standing up to one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, tackling an issue he himself had sidestepped earlier in his presidency.

Opinion: In 2013, democracy talks back

At that moment of the speech -- calling for real change in the wake of tragedies like the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut -- what we saw was a president in full, a man who knew his job, knew his power and was not afraid. He might or might not get the reforms he wanted. But he could certainly send a message to even his most obdurate opponents that he would use whatever tools and influence he had to demand they at least take a stand.

One can only hope he will do more, go past getting a vote to getting the results we need -- background checks, bans on assault weapons and high-volume magazines, mental health care reform, a real effort to stop gun trafficking. But whatever the outcome, at that moment Tuesday night, the focused energy of this president at this stage of his presidency reverberated through the rafters of the Capitol and suggested that this long speech was not a laundry list but a to-do list, an agenda for change offered up by a confident and empowered advocate.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT