Skip to main content

Obama dares Congress to get the job done

By Anne-Marie Slaughter, Special to CNN
updated 9:20 AM EST, Wed February 13, 2013
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

Editor's note: Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning in the U.S. State Department (2009-2011), is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. She curates foreign policy on Twitter at @slaughteram.

(CNN) -- 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."

Anne-Marie Slaughter
Anne-Marie Slaughter

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."

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."

Opinion: Obama's 'do-something' plan for a 'have-nothing' government

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.



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."

Opinion: This time, a president in full

Focus group's highs, lows on SOTU
Obama: Harvest immigrants' talents
GOP responds to the State of the Union

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.

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.

Opinion: In 2013, democracy talks back about State of the Union

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anne-Marie Slaughter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
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.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT