Skip to main content

Obama dares Congress to get the job done

By Anne-Marie Slaughter, Special to CNN
February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1420 GMT (2220 HKT)
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
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT