Many people I spoke with about President Obama’s speech last night said they weren’t even going to watch. Most were once ardent supporters and still blame Republicans for the president’s problems but are also bitterly disappointed in the president and have tuned him out. But after the speech, they may want to reconsider their disillusion.
On the surface, the speech read like an admission of the president’s weakness. With the stroke of his mighty pen, he will . . . well, he will sign an increase in the minimum wage for federal contract workers! That action is unlikely to send any warm feelings of excitement up anyone’s leg. At times last night, President Obama sounded Bill Clinton’s plaintive cry in the days after the Republican sweep of 1994: “The president is relevant here.”
It’s instructive to remember that from that nadir, Clinton rose to new heights: welfare reform, a balanced budget and a booming economy. There are many differences between now and then, but here’s an important similarity: triangulation. As in 1994 when Clinton negotiated successfully with Republicans on a host of issues, President Obama and congressional Republicans also have a coincidence of political interest. First, Republicans will not repeat their government shutdown mistake. While that benefited Democrats, it also damaged economic growth, which hurt Obama. A saner budget process may bolster economic confidence, which, in turn, would bolster Obama. Second, savvier Republicans realize that their long-term political prospects depend on recovering their standing with Hispanics on the immigration issue. Comprehensive immigration would remove a Republican “curse” and carve the second prominent notch in Obama’s legacy alongside his health-care law. Finally, the president’s focus on addressing growing income disparity is a convenient club with which to pound Republicans until November.
The president’s innocent belief in big things done in a bipartisan manner is dead. In its place is a more liberated and hardened politician. And, perhaps, a more skillful one.