Presidents are apt to adopt a conciliatory stance during the last two years of their presidency. In 2007, George W. Bush, facing a Democratic-controlled Congress, gave a State of the Union Address leaning on bipartisan issues that left the conservative wing of the Republican Party disappointed.
On paper, the political balance is tilted more against Obama now than it was for Bush. President Barack Obama’s approval rating of 43 percent, his lowest ever, is 6 points higher than Bush’s was in January 2007, but Republicans command a sizeably larger majority in Congress now, than Democrats did at the beginning of Bush’s last two years.
Obama addressed the perfunctory, topical issues of the day: He promoted his proposals for greater integration of cybersecurity standards in light of the Sony hack, reiterated support for the “moderate opposition” in Syria, promoted the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and made muted allusions to the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.
But the centerpiece of Obama’s address was a renewed call for economic populism, buttressed with the maudlin story of Rebekah and Ben Erler, a waitress and a construction worker from Minneapolis, who struggled to make ends meets after their decision to start a family coincided with the financial crisis.
Ben Erler lost his job and had to find employment far from home and Rebekah Erler had to take out student loans to retrain for a new career. They eventually recovered and have a second son, with Ben home for dinner every night.
“America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story. They represent the millions who have worked hard, and scrimped, and sacrificed, and retooled,” Obama said, segueing into his outline of a program of “middle-class economics,” a phrase he used five times.
The details of Obama’s “middle-class economics” weren’t new, but merely given a poignant delivery. The White House had released a fact sheet of the plans for tuition-free community colleges, an expansion of paid sick leave, and tax cuts for two-parent families days before the speech.
In the plans released earlier, the programs would be financed by a $320 billion tax hike spread over the next decade, mostly from raising the inheritance and capital-gains tax rate, but those details were left out of the speech.
Republican Response and Beyond
Republicans had already dismissed the idea of tax hikes over the weekend, and they were reiterated in the official Republican response to the president’s speech.
“So let’s iron out loopholes to lower [tax] rates—and create jobs, not pay for more government spending,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).
Commentators on the right have dismissed the president’s new populism as quixotic, but some observers see it as a step in laying the ground rules of a 2016 Democratic victory.
“It gives Democrats the ability to say, this is what we proposed, and the Republicans turned it down. It allows Democrats to see how some of these ideas play in public opinion,” said Michael Heaney, assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan. “He’s posturing and setting agenda for Democrats in the future.”
Indeed, Obama invoked references to the era of FDR, which saw one of the greatest expansion of government in U.S. history.
“During World War II, when men like my grandfather went off to war, having women like my grandmother in the workforce was a national security priority—so this country provided universal child care,” he said. “America thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free, sent a generation of GIs to college, and trained the best workforce in the world.”
Heaney said that the proposals could also function as a shield for the implementation of Obama’s earlier policies.
“If the president doesn’t offer anything, he loses power. Power comes not only from formal votes in Congress but from public perception of whose got the agenda that’s best for the country,” Heaney said.
Another reason for the president’s optimism may simply be that he has little to lose. The Republican House has played hardball with the president from the start, passing a bill needed to fund the Department of Homeland Security with a provision that would gut his November executive order on immigration.
The conservative wing of House Republicans have proven to be trenchant in their opposition to the president, and launched a coup to topple Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio.), who has been accused of cooperating with the president to undercut a conservative agenda, at the start of the new Congress.
“If the president is still genuinely trying to convince people to do things, but if he knows he won’t get anything, you might as well ask for the moon,” Heaney said.