Democrats pushed 2014 campaign points into Obama’s State of the Union address

In the days leading up to his State of the Union address, President Obama hosted the Senate Democrats for some anxious talk about their prospects in the 2014 midterm elections.

There was worry among the lawmakers that the theme of “income inequality” was becoming defined solely by calls for raising the minimum wage and extending unemployment insurance benefits that would come off as light and unambitious. So some Democrats pushed him to do more.

“That’s a great start, but you ought to challenge us to go beyond that to pass bipartisan bills that will strengthen manufacturing, that will invest in skills in American workers,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told Obama, according to the senator’s account. “Please challenge us to do more.” At the heart of the concern was whether the income-inequality message would resonate sufficiently with middle-class voters, so critical to the outcome of the midterms.

Some Democratic leaders worried that all the talk about income inequality and the focus on the minimum wage would not connect to the more than 90 percent of voters who have jobs and are not earning less than $10 an hour.

“Unemployment and minimum wages are simply floors, not objectives,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday after Obama delivered a speech that many Democrats found reassuring.

And the president spent the next few days bouncing around the country, reprising the themes of making college more affordable, closing the pay gap between male and female workers and revitalizing the manufacturing sector.

The result is that Democrats are now cautiously optimistic that they have a more defined and effective agenda to rally around going into the fall elections. There are still doubts that the new Obama agenda will translate into political success at the ballot box, but Democrats at least think they are on the same page with the president.

They feel that broader message can be more squarely aimed at the middle class, providing widespread benefits potentially to tens of millions of workers while also appealing to a massive clutch of voters.

That double-barrel approach is something that some Democrats had worried had become lost. In the month leading up to State of the Union, the party’s messaging increasingly focused just on the proposal to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to more than $10 an hour and the push to renew unemployment benefits for the more than 1.4 million long-term jobless who lost aid after the emergency federal program expired last month.

But the broader strategy may be too broad at the moment, without clearly defined legislative proposals — Coons has a plan that contains 44 separate proposals from 26 senators. It’s unclear whether these ideas will be crafted into a packaged legislative agenda under one thematic banner, the way each party has sometimes done in previous years.

For now, Republicans are dismissive of the Democratic agenda, suggesting the early focus for Democrats has been on items that poll well but will have little policy or political impact.

The minimum wage, in particular, they contend, will not have a big effect on the broader national economy. “The minimum-wage debate is sort of a tired debate, in the sense that it affects 2 to 3 percent of American workers, half of whom are young people,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

Politically, senior Republicans label increasing the minimum wage a feel-good cause that does well in polls because few voters can imagine working for less than $8 an hour. “I don’t see that as anything that drives voters to the conclusion that that’s a policy,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), agreeing that the Democratic proposal polls well. “If you ask what are the three things you care about the most, I don’t believe the minimum wage is anywhere near the top.”

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said the minimum-wage debate would probably take place in early March, and he suggested that renewed talks on extending unemployment benefits had again brought the Senate close to approving a new plan. Still, even if the Senate was to pass those proposals, House Republicans have shown little appetite for them.

That congressional gridlock has left Obama threatening to take executive actions on a host of these issues that will implement, temporarily, some portion of his objectives.

But Democrats have some divisions over the value of that approach.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the No. 3 Democratic leader, said that forceful approach would help break through with a public that sees Washington as merely dysfunctional and not helping boost the economic recovery. “The number one thing the American people are frustrated about is government’s inability to help them — government,” Schumer said. “They don’t say the legislative branch, the executive branch. They want some action.”

In a speech five days before Obama’s, Schumer suggested Democrats focus on five easy-to-grasp issues in areas where the government can help the middle class, including college affordability and equitable pay for women. Schumer’s tone made clear that these proposals stood little chance of being enacted, but combined with the president’s executive actions, they would at least portray Democrats as on the side of the middle class.

Some Democrats, however, have grown antsy over the executive-action talk. It’s going against the grain for many who were elected in the 2006 and 2008 Democratic waves against the George W. Bush White House’s perceived executive overreach. “That’s an important balance of power that we need to keep intact,” Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), elected in 2008 and facing a difficult reelection this November, said after the speech.

Such actions might boost Obama’s political popularity, but it doesn’t provide a platform for Democrats running in House and Senate races. And it seems to send the signal that there is little hope for legislative deals on economic issues, which would have a more significant and lasting boost than an executive order that can be overturned by the next president.

“Certainly, the White House could be better engaged in the legislative process,” said Rep. Gerry E. Connolly (D-Va.), echoing an oft-repeated criticism that Obama needs to do more buttonholing and more schmoozing of lawmakers to get deals.

This is what prompted Coons to speak out at the Jan. 15 dinner at the White House. He supports extending unemployment benefits and increasing the minimum wage, as well as the executive actions Obama plans to take. However, Coons said those proposals would probably not reach down to help the mythical figure he thinks of: the former line worker at a now shuttered General Motors plant working two jobs, whose wife also holds a job, struggling to make as much as he used to get paid.

Some of the bills have bipartisan support, such as one providing research-and-development tax credits for manufacturing start-ups. He told Obama that he needs to also make a push for such legislation.

“There’s bills already introduced — we just need him to pull it,” Coons said Tuesday night after the speech, more hopeful than he was two weeks earlier. “If Congress is willing to listen, he issued a clear call for us to act together on manufacturing. It’s my hope that in the weeks ahead we will.”

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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