ABC The Drum

Barack Obama's State of the Union address was less about trying to sway the Republican Congress over the next two years and more about providing a map for America's future beyond his own time in office, writes

Tonight, US president Barack Obama gave his first post-recession State of the Union address.

"At this moment," he said in the speech's opening lines, "with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production, we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any nation on earth."

For the first time since taking office, he was able to speak to a nation that feels, finally, optimistic about the country's economic future, and laid out a vision of how a more prosperous America might be a more liberal one as well.

Though the United States has officially been in recovery for more than five years, Obama has had to avoid expressing too much economic optimism in his past State of the Union addresses. While the stock market rocketed to all-time highs and corporations sat on unprecedented amounts of cash, middle- and lower-class Americans were left behind. Polls showed that even as unemployment dropped and the dollar rebounded, most Americans didn't feel the effects of recovery.

That has changed in recent months. A CBS poll taken last week showed 53 per cent of Americans rated the economy "good". Not only was that number 13 points higher than just four months ago, it was the highest since September 2007.

Now that Americans have started to feel the recovery, the president can begin to talk about what a more prosperous America might look like. At the heart of his story: the middle class. He defined "middle-class economics", the leitmotif of his speech, as "the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules".

"The verdict is clear," the president said after a recitation of recent good news. "Middle-class economics works."

Many have called this speech, with its proposals for free community college and higher taxes on the wealthy, a Robin Hood speech. But that's not quite right. First of all, the US has had a progressive tax system for over a century. We can call that a "Robin Hood approach", but it would probably be simpler to just call it liberalism.

Moreover, the poor — Robin Hood's legendary beneficiaries — barely appeared in Obama's speech. Gone were the references to unemployment relief and food stamp extensions that Obama used to spotlight in his annual speech. Instead, Obama focused on the middle class and the sort of universalist programs that attract the most political support in the United States.

Take, for instance, his community college proposal. Offering free tuition for up to two years for students who maintain a 2.5 GPA and at least half-time enrolment, the program eases community college costs for the middle class. (Poorer students have their tuition covered by Pell grants, which Obama expanded earlier in his presidency.) Likewise, Obama's proposals for paid sick leave, affordable childcare, and faster, cheaper internet access are programs that appeal to Americans across the economic spectrum.

The decision to promote universalist policies shows that Obama knows his history. In the budget-cutting zeal of the 1990s, Congress slashed funds to welfare programs for the poor: limiting cash-assistance, tightening eligibility for food stamps, and increasing work requirements. But Social Security and Medicare, the two major entitlement programs that served the middle class — and accounted for a substantial portion of the federal budget — remained untouched.

Obama's understanding of social policy has been shaped by those political battles. The Affordable Care Act covers everyone, not just the poor, and the tweaks to the program that the president has supported have largely been aimed at easing the economic burden for middle-class Americans. The proposals he laid out tonight reflect that same sensibility.

Obama knows that most of his policies will not pass through the Republican Congress. But he was not addressing them — after six years, he knows a lost cause when he sees one. He was instead selling the American people on liberal governance, and providing a roadmap to the Democrats who will continue to govern after he leaves office in two years.

It was a blueprint for Obama-era liberalism — incremental and universalist — which, if enacted, will extend his legacy long after his days in office are done.

This article was originally published at ABC The Drum