The January employment numbers contained good news across the board, and appear to confirm that the jobs market and recovery are accelerating. Which raises a question: If we keep gaining steam, will the Republican presidential candidates be forced to recalibrate the ways they’re talking about President Obama and the economy?

The GOP candidates agree with Hillary Clinton: The 2016 campaign will be all about how best to combat stagnating wages and ensure inclusive prosperity. But the contrast between Clinton and the Republicans, in terms of how both are beginning to talk about these topics in preparation for their presidential runs, is striking.

Two important articles released over the weekend capture this contrast nicely. The first, by Amy Chozick, reports that Clinton has been talking to dozens of economists in the quest to develop an economic agenda that is “more populist” than is commonly associated with Clinton, who is often tarred as too close to Wall Street. While Clinton is shying away from some economic proposals favored by liberal economists, she is eying an agenda that includes infrastructure spending, a minimum wage hike, tax relief for the middle class funded by closing corporate loopholes, and ideas such as “providing incentives to corporations to increase profit-sharing with employees and changing labor laws to give workers more collective bargaining power.”

The second article, by Chico Harlan and Jim Tankersley, reports that the “robust” recovery is “threatening the longtime Republican strategy of criticizing President Obama for holding back growth and hiring.”

Right now, even some conservative reformers are frustrated with the Republican presidential candidates for not trying harder to develop an affirmative middle class agenda. Republicans appear trapped in a debate over whether they should continue prioritizing the push for lower tax rates at the top, to shower everyone else with prosperity, or whether they should make middle class tax cuts more central to their agenda. While the GOP candidates are experimenting with new ways of talking about inequality, and appear inclined towards various middle class tax relief proposals, they appear as wedded as ever to the dogmatic prioritization of tax cuts for the rich as an economic cure-all. Meanwhile, Obama and Democrats are pushing long term investments in education and infrastructure, and plans to pay for middle class tax relief by taxing capital gains and inherited wealth, and Clinton appears to be gravitating towards a similar approach.

In other words, all appearances suggest Clinton is farther advanced than her GOP rivals in terms of developing a middle class agenda. To be sure, Clinton still faces problems of her own on this front. The possibility of divisions among Dems over the party’s economic direction remains very real. And if stagnating wages are indeed going to be central to the 2016 campaign, it remains unclear whether swing voters will be persuaded by the traditional Democratic emphasis on government interventionist policies, as the 2014 losses drove home. Still, as Jeb Bush’s recent speech showed, the GOP candidates’ discussion of stagnating wages appears more focused on figuring out how to blame Obama and big government for the problem than for proposing their own proactive solutions to it.

In this sense, the improving economy has produced a shift in GOP rhetoric. If Republicans are now finding it harder to blame Obummer Big Gummint for the sluggishness of the overall recovery, they are now focused more on blaming it for the problem of the Great Wage Slowdown in particular. But even some GOP-aligned strategists worry this won’t be enough, as this wonderful quote shows:

“When Hillary Clinton runs, she’s going to say, ‘The Republicans gave us a crappy economy twice, and we fixed it twice. Why would you ever trust them again?’ ” said Kevin Hassett, a former economic adviser to GOP nominees Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Indeed, Republicans appear convinced that attacking Clinton as a potential Obama “third term” remains a potent message. But what happens to this GOP strategy if Obama’s economic numbers continue to improve? That question brings us to our next item.


* OBAMA’S ECONOMIC APPROVAL RISES: A new Associated Press poll finds signs that the President’s numbers on the economy really may be recovering:

A slim majority now approves of the way Obama is handling unemployment…Forty-seven percent of those surveyed approve of how Obama is doing his job, compared with 41 percent in December, and 51 percent approve of his handling of unemployment, compared with 44 percent before. Nearly half say the economy is good now, while 41 percent thought that in December…Approval of the way Obama is handling the economy improved slightly, 41 percent to 45 percent, over the past two months.

And this was before the release of Friday’s jobs report, which brought signs across the board that the economy may really be picking up. If Obama’s numbers on the economy continue rising, how will that impact the Republican strategy of continuing to ask, “where are the jobs, Obummer?”

* BUT AMERICANS DON’T SEE RECOVERY BENEFITING THEM: Also from the new AP poll, some cautionary numbers for Democrats:

People still feel that their own recovery is lagging, the poll shows, with only 35 percent saying their own family has completely or mostly recovered from economic downturn. Just 27 percent see the job market where they live as being most of the way to recovery, far less than the number that thinks big businesses (55 percent) and the stock market (53 percent) have bounced all the way back…The poll finds that people are slightly more likely to trust Democrats than Republicans on handling economic issues, 33 percent to 28 percent.

More evidence the argument over how to ensure a more inclusive prosperity will likely be central to our politics for the next two years.

* WOULD SCOTUS GUTTING OBAMACARE PRESENT PROBLEM FOR GOP? The New York Times reports that Republicans may face a conundrum if the Supreme Court guts Obamacare subsidies in three dozen states: They have no alternative ready to go yet may face intense pressure to fix the problem. Some conservatives are advising them to prepare, but there is a hidden motive:

Some conservatives like Thomas P. Miller of the American Enterprise Institute have been urging Republicans to devise a contingency plan that would allow consumers to keep insurance subsidies for a transition period. The existence of such a plan “would reassure Supreme Court justices” that they could rule against the administration without fear of causing turmoil in insurance markets, he said.

No doubt some conservatives genuinely want Republicans to be ready with an alternative. But really, a lot of this is really about making the Justices feel as if the consequences of a ruling against the law might not be all that dire.

 * REPUBLICANS FACE MAJOR TEST ON BUDGET: The Wall Street Journal reports that Republicans face a balancing act: How to pass a budget with spending cuts deep enough to make conservatives happy without putting GOP Senators up for reelection next year in a difficult political spot.

While Republicans’ top budget-writers have committed to eliminating the annual federal budget deficit over 10 years, doing so is expected to require deep cuts in entitlement programs, particularly if tax increases are off the table. That means the GOP will face a challenge negotiating a budget conservative enough to pass the House without proposing politically unpopular cuts that could cause heartburn for Senate Republicans, whose states often represent a broader political spectrum.

Keep in mind: A number of Senate Republicans voting for a Paul Ryan-style blueprint will be seeking reelection in states carried by Obama.

* NO, DEBT IS NOT THE ONLY PROBLEM FACING AMERICA: Speaking of the above, Paul Krugman’s column argues that prioritizing long term debt reduction over the need to spend to create jobs now is not only wrongheaded, but deeply irresponsible:

Nations with stable, responsible governments — that is, governments that are willing to impose modestly higher taxes when the situation warrants it — have historically been able to live with much higher levels of debt than today’s conventional wisdom would lead you to believe….Of course, America, with its rabidly antitax conservative movement, may not have a government that is responsible in this sense. But in that case the fault lies not in our debt, but in ourselves. So yes, debt matters. But right now, other things matter more. We need more, not less, government spending to get us out of our unemployment trap. And the wrongheaded, ill-informed obsession with debt is standing in the way.

Obama’s budget was an effort to break us out of this Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop. Better late than never!

* OBAMA ENDORSES FILIBUSTER REFORM: The President gives a wide ranging interview to Vox, and in it, he offers this prescription for ending gridlock and dysfunction in Washington:

“Probably the one thing that we could change without a constitutional amendment that would make a difference here would be the elimination of the routine use of the filibuster in the Senate. Because I think that does, in an era in which the parties are more polarized, it almost ensures greater gridlock and less clarity in terms of the positions of the parties….The filibuster in this modern age probably just torques it too far in the direction of a majority party not being able to govern effectively and move forward its platform.”

Of course, Democrats may suddenly be less enthusiastic about filibuster reform, now that it looks like the GOP is the only party that has any chance of controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress in the near future.

* OBAMA’S HERESIES ABOUT CHRISTIANITY: E.J. Dionne sets the record straight:

I guess a president isn’t allowed to have complicated views about religion….Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore called Obama’s comments “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.” Good grief. Do Obama’s critics think that Christians reduce their credibility by acknowledging their imperfections? Is it disrespectful of Christ to admit that Christians regularly fall short of His teachings? That would make St. Augustine a heretic.

* BEHOLD THE CRUZ-MENTUM!!! Texas Senator Ted Cruz is now looking “very, very seriously” at a presidential run, even as he is suggesting that a major test of Republican mettle right now is how aggressively they are willing to stand up to Obama’s executive action shielding millions from deportation. Perfect: Cruz can run as the candidate most committed to maximum deportations!

* AND BEHOLD THE WALKER-MENTUM IN LONDON!!! Scott Walker is heading to London today for a four day trip, and millions of Americans are quivering with anticipation over the big unknown: Can he set foot abroad without putting his foot in his mouth? Recent foreign trips have not gone all that well for GOP presidential hopefuls…