February 13, 2013

In his State of the Union speech yesterday, President Obama laid out an ambitious vision for where he wants to take the country. He offered a way out of our economic doldrums — investment in the country’s future as an alternative to more crippling austerity. He proposed taking action to fix the broken immigration system, address the climate change that threatens our future, reform voting irregularities, staunch the ongoing gun slaughter of tends of thousands of Americans each year, and help millions struggling to enter the middle class, via a minimum wage hike, universal pre-school, and other proposals.

Many of these ideas have broad support. Obama’s speech represented an effort to solve an array of problems that the American people appear to want solved. Yet the prospects for his agenda’s success are not up to him. They rest in the hands of Republicans.

Republicans face a choice. Either they can accept the realities of public opinion and become a functional opposition party, by working with Obama and Democrats to get some of what they want while allowing Obama to claim some victories of his own, as unbearable a prospect as that might seem. This is what Newt Gingrich eventually did in the 1990s. Or they can continue to reflexively obstruct everything, with an eye towards — well, it’s not clear what this would accomplish, except kicking the can down the road in hopes of taking back the Senate in 2014, making it even easier to tie up Obama’s agenda in advance of another grab at the White House in 2016.

Given the current state of the GOP brand — and the shifting demographic realities that suggest the Democratic coalition is ascendant, while the Republican one is shrinking — is this really a long term gamble Republicans are prepared to take? The proposals Obama laid out yesterday are likely to continue cementing the degree to which core growing constituencies — Latinos; young voters; college educated whites, especially women; and even to some extent non-college white women — identify with the Democratic Party. Reflexive GOP opposition to all these things could exacerbate the party’s estrangement from these groups.

Yesterday’s rebuttal by Marco Rubio was not encouraging. He rehashed many of the same old anti-government bromides that were soundly defeated in the 2012 election. As Steve Benen notes, the speech suggested that that Republicans are absolutely convinced that “there are no substantive lessons to be learned from their 2012 defeats.” Rubio’s primary statement outlining the GOP vision for government’s role in people’s lives amounted to this: “It plays a crucial part in keeping us safe, enforcing rules, and providing some security against the risks of modern life.” This isn’t an affirmative vision. It’s a grudging concession.

If Republicans are going to become a functional opposition party, and start trying to get at least some of what they want, they have to figure out what it is they want in policy terms, other than “whatever Obama doesn’t want.” Josh Barro’s advice for Republicans:

They need to signal that they have a serious policy agenda that considers programs and regulations on a case-by-case basis, rather than just demagoguing the government. They need a real agenda on health care and jobs rather than just opportunistic opposition to anything the president does. In other words, they need a message that befits a grown-up party that is ready to govern.

By laying out a strong affirmative case that government can act to solve the nation’s most pressing problems and foster long term economic security and shared prosperity, Obama intensified the GOP’s dilemma in a big way.

* Marco Rubio has learned nothing: Nice catch by Paul Krugman: Rubio floated the rehashed nonsense about how the financial crisis was caused by … Barney Frank and Fannie and Freddie. As Krugman notes, this is yet another sign that the GOP refuses to reckon with the true legacy of the financial meltdown.

* Reasons for real hope on immigration: An important point about the speech from Michael Gerson:

The most significant development of the night: President Obama’s decision not to use the immigration issue as a partisan wedge. The general principles he outlined –- tightened border security, earned citizenship, fixing the legal immigration system –- are broadly consistent with the approach of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and the rest of the Gang of Eight in the Senate…he gave Congress the flexibility — and Republicans the cover — to achieve it.

Meawhile, as Taegan Goddard notes, the popularity of Obama’s other proposals very well may end up serving as a wedge. The question is whether that wedge can break gridlock in Congress.

* Insta-poll shows Obama policies were well received: A CNN poll taken just after the speech found that 77 percent had a very or somewhat positive reaction to it. The more important findings, however, may be related to the policies he proposed. Seven in 10 said the gun policies would move the country in the right direction; over three fourths approved of the immigration policies; and nearly two-thirds said his plans will improve the economy.

* Obama speech resonated with swing voters: Focus grouping done by Dem pollster Stan Greenberg showed that the economic agenda laid out in his speech yesterday resonated successfully among 44 swing voters in Colorado — particularly his plans for universal pre-school and a minimum wage hike. It’s often forgotten just how popular raising the minimum wage is across the political spectrum. (link fixed)

Meanwhile, the pre-school proposal strongly resonated among unmarried women, a core Obama group, yet another sign that the President continues speaking to the majority coalition of the ascendant that reelected him and will likely be increasingly important to the Democratic Party.

* Universal preschool is an important economic proposal: Jonathan Cohn has a good overview of Obama’s preschool proposal, with a focus on the degree to which it would provide financial assistance to poor and middle class families by relieving child care costs. As Cohn notes, this proposal faces an extremely steep road, but it’s still good that the President got the conversation going around it.

*Republican calls for a vote on gun measures: This is key: GOP Rep. Tom Cole, an influential conservative, said today that we should have a vote on Obama’s gun control measures. The House GOP leadership has not said whether it will allow a vote on any of them, and a House vote on the broadly popular universal background check would put Republicans in very interesting spot.

 * And the gun control fight set to come to a head: Steve Kornacki has a nice piece laying out why next year will be ground zero in Obama’s efforts to become the Gun Control President. This point about the 2014 midterms is key:

If those who support the news laws pay a price at the polls, the issue will again recede. But if they survive – and, especially, if those who vote against any of the laws Obama is calling for are defeated – it should create new momentum for further, more far-reaching reforms.

What else?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.