New Page. Same Obama.

The president declares that the nation has finally turned the corner and is entering a new era. Then why does everything feel so familiar?

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address on January 20, 2015 in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to address income inequality, making it easier for Americans to afford college education, and child care.
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James Oliphant
Jan. 20, 2015, 5:20 p.m.

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.”



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