In his State of the Union speech, President Obama mostly avoided direct assaults on Republicans and made the somewhat conciliatory suggestion that “most” Congressional Republicans want to rebuild the American people’s “trust” in Washington, inviting them to join him in doing just that.
But he then doubled down on precisely the argument that is the main point of contention with Republicans, arguing that the primary challenge we face is stagnating economic mobility and widening inequality, and crucially, that only an agenda of robust government intervention can reverse the larger trends underlying those problems and restore economic mobility and the American dream.
The current political tug of war breaks down as follows. Republicans want the Obama era to be seen as one of excess liberal governance thwarting our economic potential, leading to widespread misery. The primary vehicle for this argument is Obamacare — government interference is only leading to lost coverage, higher premiums, and crushed jobs. Only electing Republicans to Congress can act as a check on unbridled liberal governance and restore market-powered prosperity.
Democrats want to persuade Americans that only they have an actual policy program to deal with our primary problems — that the gains from the recovery are not broadly shared, that wages have stagnated, and that there aren’t enough jobs. The Dem case is that the Republican arguments against Obama’s signature domestic achievement are really a proxy for the same old GOP trickle down ideology, that only getting government out of the way — and keeping taxes and regulations low on rich people and job creators — can unleash the market potential that will miraculously lift up everyone below them.
White House advisers say they think that if the argument is understood on the latter terms — in the 2014 elections in particular — they will have the advantage. So yesterday’s speech was the start of a broader effort to use whatever “bully pulpit” powers the presidency has to shift the argument onto that turf.
Most of the domestic policy proposals he discussed were designed to reinforce this frame, from more infrastructure stimulus to universal pre-K to the minimum wage hike to the casting of immigration reform as about “opportunity” and health reform as a facilitator of “financial security.” Obama used careful language in making this case, for instance describing tax revenues for infrastructure spending as “savings” from tax reform. sounding language. But while you can quarrel around the margins of Obama’s speech, ultimately what he laid out was an expansive liberal economic agenda — see Jonathan Cohn for a good explanation of the policy ideas themselves — cloaked in moderate language. This is exactly the sort of thing that used to infuriate Republicans about Bill Clinton.
Along these lines, Obama’s vow to use executive action is being widely seen as evidence he must reconcile himself to a limited agenda. Ron Fournier, while acknowledging GOP culpability, casts this as essentially an admission of failure. Jonathan Chait more directly diagnoses why this has come to pass, noting Republicans are actively trying to stymie the recovery, leaving Obama with only the option of projecting an aura of action on the economy wherever possible.
But beyond this argument, what the vow of executive action really constitutes is a gamble that Americans, at bottom, agree more with the liberal economic vision than the conservative one. The hope: If people support liberal economic policies like the minimum wage hike, they will support accomplishing them via executive action, won’t care about process, and will contrast this action favorably with Congressional Republicans, who will remain associated with Washington dysfunction and, by extension, economic pessimism.
One last point: Obama cast the need for robust government action to restore economic mobility for the middle class as integral to “who we are.” This is an implicit rebuke of Tea Party dogma, and on the substance, Obama has the big story right. As economic historian Michael Lind has put it: “The middle class in America, outside of the South, has always been in part a creation of economic engineering by means of laws and public policies…middle classes are made in part by enlightened public policy.”
* THE PROGRESSIVE RESPONSE TO OBAMA’S SPEECH: Dem Rep. Raul Grijalva, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, laid out the liberal response in an interview with Rachel Maddow. The focus was on Obama’s assertion that he will exercise executive authority to spur the economy:
“It’s an important precedent. It says to all of America that the President is going to take a leadership role. While Congress does nothing about the minimum wage, the president is exerting leadership…it adds momentum to the issue of income inequality, wage disparity, and raising the minimum wage. I thought it was a very important and powerful statement that he made…the president went over Congress’ head to deal with voter registration, minimum wage, Iran and diplomacy, climate change.”
While Grijalva did fault Obama for not being specific on how he’d use executive authority on immigration in particular, his remarks are a reminder of how big a victory Obama’s vow of executive action is for Congressional liberals, who have been agitating for this for some time.
* OBAMA TAKES HANDS OFF APPROACH ON IMMIGRATION: Related to the above: Maddow made a key point when she asked Grijalva this about immigration reform:
“The president…made an economic case for why it was necessary, but did not punch hard on the issue, did not push Congressional Republicans in the ways that he has previously. Do you think that was strategic, to try to give Republicans some room to find a way to say Yes?”
Yup. Democrats really believe Republicans now want to get to Yes on immigration reform, and if Obama goes at them too hard on the issue, it will give them a way to walk away.
* SPEECH AIMED AT UNMARRIED WOMEN: Dem pollster Stan Greenberg has a memo out detailing the results of his SOTU dial session: There was strong skepticism about Washington’s effectiveness going in, but support for Obama’s emphasis on pocketbook issues. This gets at one of the key goals of the speech:
The president also appealed to the voters he most needed to bring back — unmarried women. This critical group — who were a quarter of the electorate in 2012 and gave two thirds of their vote to the president and Democrats recently. Democrats will need their votes — and strong turnout — in 2014. The president’s rouising call for paycheck fairness was one of the highlights of the night, driving unmarried women in the group off the charts on the dial meter.
Remember, Dems, who are on defense across the Senate map, will need to turn out their base to the maximum in red state Senate races to hold the Upper Chamber. Low income and unmarried women are key to this.
* OBAMA GIVES SHOUT OUT TO KENTUCKY GOVERNOR: The President went out of his way to cite that state’s governor, who is probably the most outspoken proponent of Obamacare in the south, saying this:
If you want to know the real impact this law is having, just talk to Governor Steve Beshear of Kentucky, who’s here tonight. Now, Kentucky’s not the most liberal part of the country. That’s not where I got my highest vote totals. [Laughter.] But he’s like a man possessed when it comes to covering his commonwealth’s families. They’re our neighbors and our friends, he said. They’re people we shop and go to church with — farmers out on the tractor, grocery clerks. They’re people who go to work every morning praying they don’t get sick. No one deserves to live that way. Steve’s right. That’s why tonight I ask every American who knows someone without health insurance to help them get covered by March 31st.
This is a frequent refrain from Beshear, recently voiced in my interview with Beshear. This could help focus more attention on the implementation of the law in this deep red state, which continues to be a fascinating story.
* REPUBLICANS TO SURRENDER ON DEBT LIMIT: No one could have predicted this:
House Republicans are getting ready to surrender: There will be no serious fight over the debt limit. The most senior figures in the House Republican Conference are privately acknowledging that they will almost certainly have to pass what’s called a clean debt ceiling increase in the next few months, abandoning the central fight that has defined their three-year majority.
Wait, so that awesome “Obamacare bailout” talking point isn’t going to be enough to power Republicans to a glorious triumph over the law?
* AND THE BEST TWEET ABOUT THE SPEECH: Re my point above about Obama cloaking popular liberal economic policies in moderate-sounding language, see this tweet from Jonathan Strong:
It’s funny to watch moderate GOPers clap cautiously at liberal ideas, look around, see they’re alone and stop
Not sure “funny” is the right word for it, but that really tells the larger story here.