Divided Democrats Put Obama in a State of the Union Squeeze

Liberals want the president to tackle income inequality; moderates want him to focus on economic growth.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 25: U.S. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at the Pathways in Technology Early College High School in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn on October 25, 2013 in New York City. President Obama had mentioned the school in a part of Brooklyn that's struggled with poverty and violence during his State of the Union address in February. While in New York Obama will also attend events to raise money for the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
National Journal
Jan. 20, 2014, 1:59 p.m.

As the White House drafts a sixth State of the Uni­on ad­dress, signs of strain are emer­ging with­in the Demo­crat­ic Party, with lib­er­als push­ing the pres­id­ent to be more out­spoken about the eco­nom­ic is­sues that now drive voter dis­sat­is­fac­tion. And while the speech isn’t likely to make a big im­pact on what policies get through Con­gress, it could have a last­ing ef­fect on the dir­ec­tion of Demo­crat­ic polit­ics.

In­deed, this year’s ad­dress is shap­ing up to be an op­por­tun­ity for the White House to bridge the di­vide between the party’s pop­u­lists and Clin­ton-era cent­rists. But there’s little sign Pres­id­ent Obama will do that.

Throughout his two terms, he has as­sidu­ously avoided tak­ing sides, gov­ern­ing more like a lib­er­al but com­mu­nic­at­ing like a post-par­tis­an cent­rist. That’s not sur­pris­ing, giv­en Obama’s 2012 co­ali­tion was made up of both af­flu­ent, col­lege-edu­cated whites and work­ing-class minor­it­ies — which served to over­shad­ow the fact that their in­terests aren’t al­ways aligned.

Des­pite the dif­fer­ences, the party has re­mained re­mark­ably united, even with the un­pop­ular­ity of Obama­care, the near-ex­tinc­tion of its fisc­ally con­ser­vat­ive Blue Dog wing, and Obama’s own de­clin­ing ap­prov­al rat­ings. But that’s start­ing to change.

“Obama needs to be re­spons­ive to where the pub­lic is. He should not over­rate the com­pon­ent of the Obama co­ali­tion that is the af­flu­ent in the same breath as the oth­ers,” said AFL-CIO Polit­ic­al Dir­ect­or Mi­chael Pod­horzer. “The real co­ali­tion that elec­ted Obama was one that over­whelm­ingly is not mak­ing it in the eco­nomy.”

Obama plans to use the speech to talk about Demo­crats’ cam­paign-year theme of in­come in­equal­ity, and he’ll fo­cus on pock­et­book is­sues like col­lege af­ford­ab­il­ity, work­place leave policies, ex­tend­ing un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits, and the party’s sig­na­ture min­im­um-wage ini­ti­at­ive for 2014.

But with the eco­nomy still sput­ter­ing, it’s un­clear wheth­er re­vis­it­ing these pre­vi­ous pro­pos­als will be enough to sat­is­fy either side.

The party’s cent­rist wing, which gen­er­ally backs en­ti­tle­ment re­forms and free-trade agree­ments that ap­peal to the more af­flu­ent, wants Obama to use the speech to con­vey an eco­nom­ic-growth mes­sage. The lib­er­al wing is ur­ging a more con­front­a­tion­al ap­proach to­ward Wall Street and high­er taxes on the wealth­i­est Amer­ic­ans.

The dis­pute was crys­tal­lized in the re­ac­tion to a Wall Street Journ­al op-ed from Third Way Pres­id­ent Jon Cow­an and Seni­or Vice Pres­id­ent for Policy Jim Kessler last month, ar­guing “eco­nom­ic pop­u­lism is a dead end for Demo­crats.” The op-ed drew scath­ing cri­ti­cism from lib­er­al groups, with the Pro­gress­ive Change Cam­paign Com­mit­tee — an or­gan­iz­a­tion boost­ing Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren of Mas­sachu­setts — de­mand­ing that Demo­crats cut ties from the group, and ac­cus­ing Third Way of shil­ling for big busi­ness.

“In­come in­equal­ity is a phe­nomen­on that’s hap­pen­ing that needs to be talked about. But when you get to the solu­tions, you run out of the easy things to do and then you get to what are we really go­ing to do to im­prove the schools, cre­ate jobs, and im­prove the eco­nomy,” said Kessler. “I think the pres­id­ent does a pretty good bal­an­cing act on these things. He poin­ted out in­come in­equal­ity as a vex­ing prob­lem, but he also talked about trade deals and hav­ing more growth.”

It will be dif­fi­cult for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to both strike that bal­ance and achieve its main polit­ic­al goal of 2014 — hold­ing onto the Sen­ate.

The White House has been hold­ing private meet­ings with sen­at­ors up for reelec­tion, bet­ting that red-state Demo­crats can be­ne­fit from eco­nom­ic ini­ti­at­ives framed in a pop­u­list man­ner. But with Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ings in bad shape in these states, that strategy could be a los­ing one.

“There are go­ing to be times when, be­cause you’re in a con­ser­vat­ive state, there’s go­ing to be move­ment to where you dis­tin­guish your­self from the pres­id­ent,” said Demo­crat­ic poll­ster John An­za­lone, who’s work­ing for Sen. Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina. (Hagan not­ably skipped Obama’s eco­nom­ic speech at North Car­o­lina State Uni­versity last week.) “But that’s not in­com­pat­ible with the lar­ger mes­sage on the middle class.”

In his weekly ad­dress, Obama said that his State of the Uni­on will “mo­bil­ize the coun­try around the na­tion­al mis­sion of mak­ing sure our eco­nomy of­fers every­one who works hard a fair shot at op­por­tun­ity and suc­cess.” That means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent sup­port­ers.

The test for the pres­id­ent is wheth­er he can con­tin­ue to straddle the middle ground when his al­lies are out­spoken as ever about a more am­bi­tious course of ac­tion.

“We’re con­cerned that there are some in the Demo­crat­ic party, some in the pro­gress­ive move­ment that want to aban­don the Clin­ton leg­acy and move to a more left-wing agenda where growth is an af­ter­thought,” said Kessler. “It’s most im­port­ant to chal­lenge our own doc­trines and as­sump­tions. That’s where we find cre­at­ive solu­tions.”

What We're Following See More »
AVOIDS SHUTDOWN WITH A FEW HOURS TO SPARE
Trump Signs Border Deal
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"President Trump signed a sweeping spending bill Friday afternoon, averting another partial government shutdown. The action came after Trump had declared a national emergency in a move designed to circumvent Congress and build additional barriers at the southern border, where he said the United States faces 'an invasion of our country.'"

Source:
REDIRECTS $8 BILLION
Trump Declares National Emergency
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

"President Donald Trump on Friday declared a state of emergency on the southern border and immediately direct $8 billion to construct or repair as many as 234 miles of a border barrier. The move — which is sure to invite vigorous legal challenges from activists and government officials — comes after Trump failed to get the $5.7 billion he was seeking from lawmakers. Instead, Trump agreed to sign a deal that included just $1.375 for border security."

Source:
COULD SOW DIVISION AMONG REPUBLICANS
House Will Condemn Emergency Declaration
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

"House Democrats are gearing up to pass a joint resolution disapproving of President Trump’s emergency declaration to build his U.S.-Mexico border wall, a move that will force Senate Republicans to vote on a contentious issue that divides their party. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Thursday evening in an interview with The Washington Post that the House would take up the resolution in the coming days or weeks. The measure is expected to easily clear the Democratic-led House, and because it would be privileged, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would be forced to put the resolution to a vote that he could lose."

Source:
MILITARY CONSTRUCTION, DRUG FORFEITURE FUND
Where Will the Emergency Money Come From?
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

"ABC News has learned the president plans to announce on Friday his intention to spend about $8 billion on the border wall with a mix of spending from Congressional appropriations approved Thursday night, executive action and an emergency declaration. A senior White House official familiar with the plan told ABC News that $1.375 billion would come from the spending bill Congress passed Thursday; $600 million would come from the Treasury Department's drug forfeiture fund; $2.5 billion would come from the Pentagon's drug interdiction program; and through an emergency declaration: $3.5 billion from the Pentagon's military construction budget."

Source:
TRUMP SAYS HE WILL SIGN
House Passes Funding Deal
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

"The House passed a massive border and budget bill that would avert a shutdown and keep the government funded through the end of September. The Senate passed the measure earlier Thursday. The bill provides $1.375 billion for fences, far short of the $5.7 billion President Trump had demanded to fund steel walls. But the president says he will sign the legislation, and instead seek to fund his border wall by declaring a national emergency."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login