WASHINGTON – Speaking about the State of the Union, Barack Obama slams the notion of extending tax breaks for millionaires, rails against the war in Iraq and speaks of a time when one party would not sit on its hands while another across the aisle stood and applauded the president.
Obama was then a United States senator, speaking in a video response to President Bush's final State of the Union address that was sent to supporters just days after Obama won the South Carolina Democratic primary, and while he was preparing for 22 primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday.
His remarks in 2008 are an intriguing study today as he prepares to deliver his second official State of the Union speech as president, at the midpoint of his term and the start of a likely reelection campaign. The poetry of his historic campaign became the prose of governance, forcing him to compromise on pledges like the one to end tax cuts on incomes above $250,000 a year.
"At a time of war and economic hardship, the last thing we need is a permanent tax cut for Americans who don't need them and weren't even asking for them," then-Sen. Obama said. "What we need is a middle-class tax cut, and that's exactly what I will provide as president."
Obama did live up to the second part of that pledge, passing a middle-class tax cut as part of the 2009 stimulus package.
Even before the severity of the economic downturn was clear and financial institutions collapsed, Obama warned about "George Bush's Washington," which "let the banks and financial institutions run amok."
Obama also devoted a significant portion of his video to the war in Iraq, at a time when the Bush surge was just being implemented. Obama, who opposed the troop buildup, advocated for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces because, as he said then, "the Iraqi government has failed to seize the moment to reach the compromises necessary for an enduring peace."
At the time, the war was a defining issue in the Democratic contest between Obama and then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who voted to authorize the use of force. Three years later, she serves in his Cabinet, along with a Republican Secretary of Defense, and combat forces have officially left a more stable Iraq. Obama then advocated a shift of forces to Afghanistan, to "[take] the fight to Al Qaeda."
Obama concluded his response then with a familiar refrain in his campaign about a new and better politics.
"Each year, as we watch the State of the Union, we see half the chamber rise to applaud the president and half the chamber stay in their seats. We see half the country tune in to watch, but know that much of the country has stopped even listening," he said. "Imagine if next year was different. Imagine if next year, the entire nation had a president they could believe in. A president who rallied all Americans around a common purpose."
"That's the kind of president we need in this country," he continued. "And with your help in the coming days and weeks, that's the kind of president I will be."
Tuesday night, there will be a more bipartisan display in the seating in the House, as Republicans and Democrats pair up into bipartisan couples throughout the chamber. The demonstration is a response not to any unity that Obama's presidency inspired, but to the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that left one of its members severely injured.