E.J. Dionne nicely sums up a feeling broadly shared by many progressives that the president we heard in the 2013 State of the Union Address is standing on higher ground than at any time since his first election:
President Obama is a freer man than he has been at any point in his presidency. He is free from the need to save an economy close to collapse, from illusions that Republicans in Congress would work with him readily, from the threat of a rising tea party movement, and from the need to win re-election.
This sense of freedom gave his State of the Union address an energy, an ease and a specificity that were lacking in earlier speeches written with an eye toward immediate political needs.
That’s all true, but it’s very important everyone understand what burdens have not been lifted from Obama’s shoulders, starting with the most obvious: his freedom from “illusions” about the opposition does not add in any way to his power to overcome or persuade them in Congress. Yes, less talk about “bipartisanship” means less frustration among Democrats. Yes, sharper partisan differentiation by the president gradually (much more gradually than a lot of progressives seem to assume) reinforces negative public judgments about the GOP. But as a very practical matter, none of these factors amount to a hill of beans unless (1) something is done to reduce the power of the minority in the Senate, or (2) Republicans decide, for whatever reason, to change their ways.
Harry Reid has largely thrown away the first opportunity, at least for the next two years. And while congressional Republicans may yet decide to postpone big fiscal confrontations until after the midterm elections, they are showing few if any signs of repentance, and have little or no fear of a 2014 electoral landscape where they will have many advantages, or of a 2016 election that seems a million miles away.
If there’s a newer and freer attitude being projected by the president, there’s a very good possibility it’s because he knows the partisan gridlock that’s caused him so much grief will soon be somebody else’s problem.