President Obama this week delivered a split-level State of the Union address.
On one level, he sought to frame the legislative competition with the GOP for the next year. On the other, he sought to reframe the electoral competition with Republicans for the next decade and beyond. That’s the front on which the speech is likely to leave an enduring mark.
This speech didn’t—and no single speech could—position the president to shatter the GOP resistance (particularly in the House) that could block many of the initiatives he unveiled. The lasting significance came in how the speech deepened the identification of Obama and his party with the preferences and priorities of his emerging “coalition of the ascendant,” especially the giant millennial generation at its core. “It does look like he is willing to say, ‘It’s a new era, a new Democratic Party, and it’s a new coalition that comprises the party,’” says Morley Winograd, a fellow at the Democratic advocacy group NDN, and the coauthor, with Michael Hais, of two books on the 95 million-strong millennials.
The most striking aspect of Obama’s remarks was how unreservedly he articulated the views of the coalition that reelected him, and how little need he felt to qualify those views for fear of alienating voters beyond it. There was a confidence bordering on swagger in his call for action on immigration reform, climate change, and gun control—issues that he almost entirely sublimated through his first term—and his unwavering defense of collective action through government.
That edge reflects the Obama team’s assessment of the political landscape after he survived the headwind of 7.8 percent unemployment to become only the third Democrat ever to win a majority of the popular vote twice. Obama crossed that threshold despite historically weak numbers among the older and blue-collar whites who traditionally anchored the conservative end of the Democratic coalition. He did so with strong support from the growing groups at the center of the Democrats’ new national coalition: minorities; socially liberal, college-educated whites (especially women); and the millennials.
Whatever its impact on the immediate policy debate, Obama’s speech marked a milestone in his effort to anneal the Democratic Party to that coalition’s priorities. Especially striking was how much of it seemed targeted directly at the massive and diverse millennial generation, born between 1981 and 2002. Obama addressed them repeatedly: by insisting that entitlement spending on the old must face some limits to prevent it from crowding out investment in the young; by framing climate change as a generational challenge; by pledging to provide young people with more training and to confront rising college costs; and by closing with a paean to citizenship that reflected their civic impulses. “They are the leading edge of where the country is headed ideologically as well as demographically,” one senior White House aide said.
The speech marked a capstone to a progression that began after the breakdown of Obama’s negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner during the debt-ceiling crisis in summer 2011. In those talks, Obama followed a Bill Clinton-type strategy of attempting to rebuild majority support following the GOP’s 2010 landslide by finding compromises with Republicans. But after that effort collapsed, Obama turned to the track that carried him to reelection and the well of Congress this week: seeking primarily to mobilize his coalition of the ascendant by articulating its priorities on social issues and the role of government, even at the price of provoking further resistance from right-leaning whites.
That course presents unmistakable risks. Obama’s social and environmental agendas could threaten Democrats running in red-leaning states and House districts, especially in the 2014 midterm election, when turnout among young people and minorities could drop. As Obama imprints this image on his party, Democrats are unlikely to hold majorities on Capitol Hill unless they can benefit more at the congressional level from the same demographic trends of growing diversity and rising education levels that are boosting their presidential position. And if economic growth doesn’t accelerate, young people and minorities could drift from the party.
But the direction Obama reaffirmed Tuesday will also challenge the GOP’s presidential prospects, no matter how Congress treats his proposals. As Hais and Winograd note, millennials represented under one-fourth of eligible voters in 2012 but will reach 30 percent by 2016 and 36 percent by 2020. Obama won three-fifths of them in 2012, and his coming collisions with Republicans on guns, climate, deficit reduction, and other issues will further identify the GOP with positions that polls show most millennials oppose.
Republicans excited about the opportunities that resisting Obama’s agenda could provide next year to recapture Senate seats in, say, Alaska or South Dakota may regret taking their eye from that larger prize. “Electoral realignments don’t occur because people change their mind about their partisan affiliation,” Hais said. “They occur because a new generation comes in with sufficient unity and number to tip the balance between two otherwise closely competing points of view. And that’s what we think is under way.”
This article appears in the Feb. 16, 2013, edition of National Journal as A Millennial Moment.