Obama dares Congress to get the job done

Obama: Let's pay our bills on time
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Story highlights

  • Anne-Marie Slaughter: 2013 State of the Union address was about progressive pragmatism
  • Slaughter: Time and again, President Obama said we can "get that done"
  • On immigration, foreign policy, jobs, tax reform, Obama urged concrete steps and progress
  • Slaughter: Obama was daring Congress, and the country, to get to work and get things done

The hallmark of the 2013 State of the Union address was progressive pragmatism.

Time and again, President Obama punctuated his proposals with the refrain: "We should be able to get that done." After his call for "bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit," he said: "We can get this done," and later, "That's what we can do together."

When he proposed the addition of three more urban manufacturing hubs and asked Congress "to help create a network of 15 of these hubs and guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is made right here in America," he added: "We can get that done."

When he described his new "Fix-It First" program and a Partnership to Rebuild America to put people to work on our most urgent infrastructure repairs and to attract private capital to the cause, he said, "Let's prove there's no better place to do business than here in the United States of America, and let's start right away. We can get this done."

Anne-Marie Slaughter

When he proposed "working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America," he added, "That's something we should be able to do." And when he called for raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, he said: "We should be able to get that done."

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In other places, such as his appeal for comprehensive immigration reform, the president exhorted the nation: "let's get it done."

But his repeated insistence on what we can get done bespoke a step-by-step approach to solving the nation's most critical problems, a list not of grand initiatives but of pragmatic steps to make concrete progress.

At the same time, he was holding a mirror to Congress, reminding them of the disgrace they bring upon themselves in the eyes of the nation and the world when they fail to get these eminently reasonable and doable things done.

Obama's approach to foreign policy was much in the same vein. Instead of calling for the completion of the Doha Round of trade negotiations under the auspices of the World Trade Organization, which has been stalled for decades, he announced his intent to complete negotiations on a "Trans-Pacific partnership" with a limited number of North American and Asian nations and to "launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union."

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He justified both initiatives in terms of creating "good-paying American jobs." The focus on the Atlantic was actually the most novel and striking of his foreign policy proposals, given the administration's widely heralded "pivot to Asia." But he chose to play down any fanfare and instead present the clear pragmatic case for expanding trade in both directions.

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Similarly, instead of talking about his commitment to "Global Zero," a vision of a world without nuclear weapons that he committed to in his first inaugural address and his Prague speech in April 2010, he again focused on a set of smaller steps.

"We'll engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands." He also reiterated his administration's commitment to prevent Iran from "getting a nuclear weapon," but focused on achieving a "diplomatic solution." No grand doctrines, no global visions, just a list of concrete, doable steps.

That is the context in which we should understand the most powerful and passionate part of his speech: His insistence that all the victims of gun violence, from Gabrielle Giffords to the children of Newtown to the moviegoers of Aurora, "deserve a vote." His point was to cut out the political grandstanding, the filibustering, the huffing and puffing and bluffing. Bring it to the floor. Stand up and be counted. Vote it up or down.

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That is how government is supposed to work. Make a proposal. Assemble a coalition. Put it before the country's elected representatives. And vote.

President Obama was daring Congress, and the country, to get to work and get it done.

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