Democrats hope Obama’s State of Union speech will be start of populist agenda

The Post's Ed O'Keefe details the pomp and circumstance of the most-watched political event of the year, the annual State of the Union address. (Theresa Poulson/The Washington Post)

Democrats consider President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday a launching point for a year of sustained assault on Republicans over a populist economic agenda, part of an effort to focus more on bread-and-butter issues and less on ­income inequality.

Party officials say they hope Obama’s speech will set the stage for Senate and House candidates to confront Republicans on issues such as the minimum wage, unemployment benefits and access to college education. Their minimum goal is to preserve Democratic control of the Senate, because not doing so could cripple what remains of the president’s legislative agenda.

In recent weeks, some Democratic lawmakers and strategists have urged the White House to focus less on academic-sounding discussions of income inequality and to simplify Obama’s message to reflect the everyday concerns of Americans. White House officials say they have long planned to emphasize such issues.

The approach is notable because raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for domestic initiatives was a centerpiece of Obama’s first-term economic agenda — a move aimed squarely at shrinking income inequality. In speeches over the past year, the president has bounced between wonky discussions about inequality and practical speeches on helping the middle class.

“My view is that the party that taps into the decline in middle-class incomes and the lack of good jobs and figures out a satisfying answer will dominate the 2014 election,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

But, he added, “the American people are more concerned about how they are doing as opposed to how someone else is doing. So simply saying ‘We’re going to raise taxes on the wealthy’ is not going to be the kind of answer that satisfies the middle class.”

Obama is planning to follow the State of the Union address with trips to Maryland’s Prince George’s County and to Wisconsin , Tennessee and Pennsylvania before an event later this week focused on long-term unemployment, which is one of the nation’s most persistent economic problems. The president is expected to announce that he will take executive actions to address a wide range of economic challenges, aides said.

Republicans are preparing a counterattack, warning that Obama will compromise his ability to get anything done in Congress if he goes it alone.

“He can work with us to create opportunity and prosperity. Or he can issue press releases,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “That’s the choice the president faces this year.”

Republican strategist Stuart Stevens said Obama can no longer talk about economic problems without taking responsibility for them. “It’s obviously very difficult, and it would be rather unprecedented, to be six years in and to be blaming your predecessors or other factors beyond your control,” he said. “It just goes back to: Are you just doing this to help people or are you just doing this to score political points?”

Democrats expressed confidence that the economic message Obama is expected to push in his speech will work to their advantage.

“He’s going to put a spotlight on this defining issue, and that spotlight will grow in the coming months,” said Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “This campaign is going to be about who’s on your side. On that issue, the contrast between Democrats and Republicans in Congress could not be clearer.”

Democratic strategists consider the debate over the minimum wage and unemployment insurance important in some of the most competitive races.

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) has been criticizing Republicans for allowing unemployment benefits to expire. And Democratic long-shot Senate candidates such as Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Michelle Nunn in Georgia are focusing on the minimum wages in their states.

White House officials say Obama’s message Tuesday night will place any discussion of inequality in the broader context of shrinking economic opportunity. He will seek to make his economic policy more easily relatable to ordinary Americans, focusing on college affordability, retirement security, infrastructure, health care and other issues.

“All of these things put together are the pillars of this concept that middle-class opportunity has been shrinking for the better part of the past three decades,” said a senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter ahead of the State of the Union address. “This is resonant because it speaks to what people are feeling in a real sense in their day-to-day lives.”

The official said that Obama’s message is not motivated by election concerns, but that it demonstrates what the president believes in.

Although Obama has focused on such issues before, some liberals argue that they will be especially powerful this year.

“Issues of economic mobility and the essential fairness of the economy have grown important as we’ve got into the fifth year of the recovery and wages are pretty much stagnant,” said Neera Tan­den, president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Some liberal Democrats have argued that the popularity of figures such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio shows that the party should embrace an agenda focused on shrinking income inequality. But many Democratic strategists have disagreed, and take heart in the White House’s plan to focus on more tangible policies.

“I don’t think voters are saying that we need to make everybody more equal,” a senior 2014 campaign official said.

Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, said polling still shows that majorities of Americans favor taxing the rich more. But given Obama’s political predicament, pushing for more taxes may not be the smartest strategy, he said.

“If the president went into the State of the Union and called for higher taxes, given that the Congress will give him none of it, it­­ could be even harder to dis­cuss his longer-term objectives,” Greenberg said.

Geoff Garin, another Democratic pollster, said the economic-
opportunity argument has more resonance than the focus on inequality.

“While there’s an overwhelming view in the country that the wealthy are not contributing their fair share, what people really want is a path for people who work hard to get ahead,” he said. “And the concern is that path has become increasingly limited.”

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.
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