In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama said he wants to “turn the page.” He should worry whether a large swath of the public heard “tax and spend” instead.
The biggest challenge Obama faces in the aftermath of the hour-long speech lies not in enacting the bulk of policy proposals he outlined; the White House already knows that isn’t likely to happen with this Congress. It’s convincing those middle-class and blue-collar voters who have been most resistant to joining his electoral coalition that this president has their best interests at heart—and that he’s not taking advantage of the economic recovery, the end of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and his own modest rebound in popularity to push unabashedly liberal priorities in his final two years in office.
It’s not that the stakes in that regard are large for Obama. As he noted himself near the end of his speech, he’s on his way out. But for a Democratic Party now sharing coequal status with the GOP in Washington, it’s crucial that the pockets of America that have never taken to this president believe that his party, from Hillary Clinton on down, can correctly read the country’s cautiously optimistic mood and neither overreach nor fall back on recycled ideas that have no chance of success.
White House aides spoke at length of Obama’s desire to lay out a new “vision” for middle-class prosperity while trumpeting the recovery from recession. But that vision largely consists of a proposal to raise taxes and fees on the wealthy and large financial institutions in order to finance tax breaks for middle-class workers, parents of young children, and students, as well as provide free tuition for community college. Philosophically, the president’s where he has always been. (Remember the “Buffett Rule” anyone?) Thematically, it’s the same old song.
Indeed, Obama seemed to suggest that the improved economy has given him license to renew his call for raising taxes on the top 1 percent, while placing his proposals squarely within the context of modern institutional liberalism. “At every moment of economic change throughout our history, this country has taken bold action to adapt to new circumstances, and to make sure everyone gets a fair shot,” Obama said. “We set up worker protections, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to protect ourselves from the harshest adversity. We gave our citizens schools and colleges, infrastructure and the Internet—tools they needed to go as far as their efforts and their dreams will take them.”
Though not billed as such beforehand, it was a stirring defense of Big Government and its capacity for elevating the stations of its less-fortunate citizens. And despite the assertions by senior White House aides that Obama’s wish list would not add a penny to the federal deficit, the risk is that the back-of-the-envelope math and pay-fors don’t penetrate the cable-news haze and his proposal is reduced to yet another rhetorical joust with Republicans over tax hikes. (That may be one reason why the White House this month has been so determined to get its message out in as many ways and on as many platforms as possible.)
If that sounds like a familiar problem, it’s because that’s what, in large part, has helped keep the Affordable Care Act unpopular. To a large section of the electorate, the law was a sweeping government program with shaky fundamentals benefitting a relative few that was enacted as the nation was reeling. Obama was trying to rectify that problem Tuesday by suggesting that now that the economy has rebounded, a larger chunk of the viewing public could share in the wealth.
But as with the ACA, deep down, Obama was talking about income redistribution. “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?” he asked. “Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”
In his defense, polls have consistently shown that a large majority of Americans are concerned about the gap between rich and poor. At the same time, however, the country is close to evenly divided as to whether government should serve as the tool to close that gap, with Democrats far more likely to support such action.
Prior to the speech, White House aides insisted that Obama wasn’t simply floating policy balloons in order to set up a contrast with Republicans on the Hill over values, but it was difficult to conclude otherwise. If the GOP doesn’t want to support Obama’s middle-class agenda, “that’s their choice,” one senior official said. That worldview didn’t seem to account for a Republican who could, say, support the idea of free community-college tuition but oppose the means by which the administration would pay for it.
Along that line, there was no talk of trying to reach any sort of large-scale compromise with the Hill in terms of increased revenues, entitlement reform, and deficit reduction. And while that might be unrealistic, it was also in keeping with a speech that announced a bold new chapter in the affairs of the United States but offered little in terms of brave ideas or creative new approaches.
As National Journal‘s Ronald Brownstein noted, Obama’s recent surge in the polls has been largely due to his reclaiming support from voters in his coalition who had been abandoning him, particularly college-educated single women, young people, and African-Americans. The president is, surprisingly, also enjoying more backing from college-educated white males who had largely been aligned with the GOP. But as always, he struggles with blue-collar whites and older voters.
After the 2014 midterms, talk was rampant in Democratic circles about finding ways to reach those hard-to-get populations. Assuming that it cares about who succeeds Obama, the White House seems to believe that including more of them in its progressive embrace will do the trick—rather than convincing them that the party holds nothing for them. Sure, the president doesn’t have to apologize for staying true to his ideals and using his office to advance them. But don’t suggest it’s a new day, when the sky looks the same.
“Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns,” Obama said Tuesday. “Imagine if we did something different.”