Every State of the Union address carries its own contextual significance. President Obama's 2011 speech was the first after his party lost the House, and observers were eager to see how he'd adapt to a changed landscape. His 2012 address came against a backdrop of his re-election campaign.
But last night was the first SOTU of Obama's second term, and it offered the president an opportunity to present a new way forward. The address also served as something of a book-end speech -- Obama delivered an ambitious inaugural address just three weeks ago, articulating a broad vision of collective action, and last night was a chance to start filling in the outlined principles with policy specifics.
So what did we learn? That the president with arguably the most consequential first term in generations doesn't intend to rest on his laurels.
Much of the political establishment keeps advising Obama to temper his ambitions, strike conciliatory tones, accept preemptive concessions, and make a conscious effort to find new ways to make Republicans happy. And the president keeps responding to this advice the same way: No. He isn't satisfied with singles and doubles; he wants to swing for the fences.
Obama wants economic investments to strengthen the recovery and sweeping new efforts to combat the climate crisis. He wants a minimum wage increase and universal pre-K. He wants comprehensive immigration reform and an overhaul of the nation's elections system.
State of the Union addresses are, by their nature, invariably going to sound like laundry lists of ideas, and last night was no exception, but it's what ties the wish list together that gives it significance -- and in this case, the president has an aggressive, progressive vision of how to make a material difference in the lives of the American mainstream, and he doesn't much plan to limit himself based on what the political establishment considers realistic.
Which, of course, leads to a related question: what's reasonable to expect going forward?
In the broadest possible sense, there are two questions of interest -- what the president wants and what he's likely to get -- and they're not necessarily of equal weight. The former offers Americans a sense of Obama's priorities and issues he's prepared to fight for; the latter provides a sense of what policymaking we can actually expect to see, at least over the next two years.
With this in mind, political observers should keep a close eye on immigration and reducing gun violence. On the former, the president presented a credible challenge:
"Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants. And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
"Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my Administration has already made -- putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history, and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.
"Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship -- a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.
"And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy."
This remains possible, and it was at least somewhat encouraging that some Republicans said after the speech that they approved of Obama's comments on the issue.
But it was the president's remarks on gun violence that resonated on a more emotional level.
"Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that's your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.
"One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.
"Hadiya's parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote. Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence -- they deserve a simple vote."
Time will tell if Republicans allow a simple vote, but the rhetoric soared, the challenge was clear, and it was heartening to see the president throw down the gauntlet.