Something should be said about President Obama’s State of the Union address – that constitutionally mandated “occasional” report to Congress on how things are going, and on what the president thinks might be wise to do next about whatever has come up recently – but one can take these things too seriously. This is simply a status report from the administrative branch of government, charged with executing the laws of the land, to the legislative branch, the guys who came up with those laws, on how it’s going so far, with recommendations on what might work better, if anyone is interested. This is not governing itself. Think of it as an internal memo. In fact, it used to be a written report, which few outside the government ever read – but this is a government of the people and by the people and for the people, so there are really no internal memos. Everyone knows what’s going on, and we’re all supposed to be interested in how things are going, well or badly, because we can toss the bums out if we don’t like what they’ve been up to. It’s our country, not theirs. Glancing at a yearly status report is a good way to get a sense of how these guys have been doing what we sent them to Washington to do.
Radio and then television changed all that. There would be no more dry written reports. There was now an opening talk to the entire nation outside the confines of any specific election to say anything at all – a political gold mine – and presidents would eventually show up in front of a joint session of Congress to preen and scold, and to inspire. Bold goals are good politics. We will send a man to the moon and return him safely. We will wage a war on poverty and win it. We will go to war and take care of that Axis of Evil once and forever, or privatize Social Security, or both. This was also an opportunity for a president to point out that his party was great, and the other party was full of misguided fools, even if they were fine fellows, and America was great, as is great, and always will be great. The internal memo became a ritual political event. Nothing much seems to come of anything that is said each year, although we did get to the moon, but that’s hardly the point. Laying down political markers was the point. Things had changed.
They might not have changed for the better for our presidents, as Steve Chapman comments here:
Whether this event is still worth their time … is doubtful. If there was ever a time that direct exposure to presidential eloquence could melt the hearts of hostile legislators, it has passed. Even the public seems to have acquired immunity. The effort often backfires. “In a 2013 analysis of SOTU polling,” [The Cato Institute’s Gene] Healy has noted, “Gallup found that ‘most presidents have shown an average decrease in approval of one or more points between the last poll conducted before the State of the Union and the first one conducted afterward.'”
It’s all just words, but Jack Shafer cheerfully begs to differ:
According to research conducted by political scientists Donna R. Hoffman and Alison D. Howard, about 40 percent of the requests a president makes in a State of the Union speech are enacted in some form as law – a batting average the major leagues haven’t seen since Ted Williams.
Perhaps presidents have inflated their batting averages by including sure-bet legislative proposals in addresses, but the addresses still frame the White House’s intentions, clarify the direction the president’s budget will take, focus press corps coverage, and help structure the legislative agenda. Language about an issue into the State of the Union also has a tendency to increase the public’s sense of urgency about it. One study of addresses from 1946 to 2003 found that every 50 words devoted by a president to an issue resulted in a 2 percentage point increase (sometimes temporary) in the public’s identification of the issue as America’s most important problem. Laugh if you want to, but political revolutions are won by 2 percentage point swings, even temporary ones.
Obama might know this, and he is now in a sweet spot with his numbers on the upswing:
His approval rating has risen nine percentage points in the past month alone, while his disapproval has dropped by 10 points. The gains are pretty even across the board, but the biggest are among Democrats (10 points), moderates (10), Hispanics (22), and even white evangelical Christians (10), who generally tilt heavily toward the GOP. Obama also has gained 19 points among adults younger than 30.
This is his time to be bold, but Greg Sargent says Obama needs to be cautious:
One thing that will be worth watching is whether positive feelings about the economy – and about Obama – boost support for his individual initiatives, particularly those which Republicans are criticizing most bitterly, and whether they scramble the political landscape more generally.
Boldness can be met with backlash-boldness from those elected by those who loathe Obama. There are dangers here, but this time everyone knew what was coming:
Over the weekend, White House aides let it be known that President Obama will propose raising taxes on the very rich, to pay for tax breaks for the middle class. More specifically, he wants to increase the tax rate on capital gains for high earners, from 23.5 per cent to twenty-eight per cent, and he also wants to remove the so-called “step up in basis” loophole, which allows rich families to reduce, often greatly, the amount of taxes they pay on their estates. The money generated by these changes would be used for a variety of purposes, including a modest tax cut for middle-class married couples, an expansion in wage subsidies to low-paid workers, and an expansion of tax credits for students in higher education.
This might be good policy, depending on your point of view and the depth of your portfolio, but Neil Irwin notes here that “one way to read President Obama’s plan is that it is a first try at what a post-Obama economic policy vision for the Democratic Party might be” going forward:
It is elegantly sculpted to avoid some of the pitfalls of Obama-era partisan warfare. The president’s first term was an extended battle over stimulus, deficits and the role of government. The administration’s first, polarizing political battle was to enact a fiscal stimulus. Next was to expand the role of government in the healthcare system. Then, battles over deficit reduction that began when a Republican House took office in 2011 were really proxy fights for both parties, with those on the left pushing for continued stimulus and those on the right using the high deficits as a reason to reshape the scale of America’s social welfare state.
The new plan may stand little chance of passage, but it signals that we are moving into a different phase of the nation’s debates over how the government taxes and spends. As Ezra Klein of Vox tweeted Saturday night, this is the first big proposal of the “post-recession, post deficit panic era.”
Okay, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but not a huge one. Obama’s State of the Union, you see, will call for $320 billion of new taxes on rentiers, their heirs, and the big banks to pay for $175 billion of tax credits that will reward work. In other words, it’s fighting a two-front war against a Piketty-style oligarchy where today’s hedge funders become tomorrow’s trust funders. First, it’s trying to slow the seemingly endless accumulation of wealth among the top 1, and really the top 0.1, no actually the top 0.001, percent by raising capital gains taxes on them while they’re living and raising them on their heirs when they’re dead. And second, it’s trying to help the middle help itself by subsidizing work, child care, and education.
Andrew Sprung is amazed that French economist shifted the whole debate:
Democrats’ willingness to credit core conservative tenets – that raising taxes on high incomes and investment gains always inhibits growth, that deregulation always spurs it – are melting away. Fresh from their November drubbing, Democrats are beginning to heighten rather than soft-pedal the policy contrasts between the parties. Wounded politically by perceptions that the Affordable Care Act helps the poor at the expense of working people, they are looking for proposals obviously attractive to the middle class. Emboldened by accelerating growth and employment gains, they are perhaps shedding inhibitions about leveling the playing field between workers and management.
Matthew Yglesias sees the same thing:
The White House is at pains to note that most of the individual middle- and working-class tax benefits they are proposing enjoy some measure of bipartisan support. But Obama is proposing to pay for them with what amounts to a series of tax increases on rich people. Republicans have made it very clear over the years that they do not believe that rich people should pay higher tax rates. To embrace this plan would entail not just a spirit of compromise that is generally lacking on Capitol Hill, but for the GOP to totally abandon one of its core economic principles.
That is a problem, and then there was the actual speech:
President Obama declared America ready to “turn the page” on years of hardship and economic insecurity in a State of the Union address Tuesday night that offered a sprawling, post-recession domestic agenda aimed at appealing to the middle class – and at revitalizing his presidency in its final two years.
“America, for all that we’ve endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this: The shadow of crisis has passed, and the state of the union is strong,” Obama said.
It was the first time Obama used the familiar phrase so directly, without qualification or condition, in a State of the Union speech.
At times boastful, confident and even cocky, Obama appeared unfazed by his party’s electoral pounding in the midterm election less than three months ago or his year of slouching approval ratings. He offered few overtures to the opposition, even interrupting his rhetoric about bipartisan harmony to shoot back a zinger at Republicans.
When he noted he has “no more campaigns to run,” some Republicans cheered. Obama responded with his own dig.
“I know ’cause I won both of them,” he ad-libbed.
That’s the first few paragraphs of the Los Angeles Times news story, and what everyone saw, but it comes down to this:
Obama declared 2014 a “breakthrough year for America,” a dramatic shift for a president who has spent his time in office either slogging through grim economic news or pleading for patience for better times ahead. But White House aides argued that the president was ready to move the economic debate past fights over austerity into what he labeled “middle-class economics.”
That was the marker Obama laid down, although he covered many things:
Obama made a broad appeal for “a better politics” and criticized partisan “gotcha moments” and “fake controversies,” but he seemed to do little else to ease the tensions.
His speech was not aimed at political centrism. Buoyed by his rising public approval and an improving economy, the president was eager to use the moment to show the public – and Washington – that he wouldn’t go quietly, aides said.
Obama pledged to veto any measures that would undo his sweeping immigration executive actions or his healthcare law. His tax proposals, which would raise $320 billion in new revenue over a decade, were more likely to frame the upcoming debate than start negotiations on tax reform.
After a year of being whipsawed by foreign crises, Obama defended his policies overseas against those who have pushed for more aggressive responses. He cast his choices as “a smarter kind of American leadership.” The phrase echoed a catchphrase the White House has used before to encapsulate his foreign policy: “Don’t do stupid stuff.”
“When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads, when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military – then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world,” Obama said in his address. “That’s what our enemies want us to do.”
He defended the ongoing multinational nuclear negotiations with Iran and restated his promise to veto proposed legislation that threatened additional sanctions against Tehran. He touted his plans to open up US policy toward Cuba, urging Congress to end the half-century trade embargo as Alan Gross, the imprisoned American aid worker freed recently after five years in a Cuban prison, looked on from the balcony.
In short, it was an in-your-face speech. He told the Republicans he had been right and they had been wrong – deal with it. This wasn’t a dry internal memo.
Brian Beutler contends here that Obama is “priming the public for Hillary Clinton’s campaign” by building a case before the public that Democrats have had better economic ideas all along:
Tuesday’s State of the Union was thus a single component of a project that’s much more meaningful than budget brinksmanship or the 2016 campaign – to establish the parameters of the economic debate for years and years, the way Ronald Reagan’s presidency lent supply-side tax policy and deregulation a presumption of efficacy that shaped not just Republican, but Democratic policy for two decades.
Seven years into Obama’s presidency, the US economy is finally growing rapidly enough to boost his popularity and to sell the country on the idea that Obama’s peculiar brand of ostentatious incrementalism – building out and improving existing institutions, directing resources through them to the middle class – has worked, and should serve as a beacon not just for liberals, but for conservatives aspiring to recapture the presidency.
Jonathan Chait sees that too:
Republicans have formulated plans to benefit working-class Americans directly, but all these plans have foundered on the problem that Republicans have no way to pay for them: they may be willing to cut taxes for the working poor, if that’s what it takes to win an election these days, but they certainly don’t want to raise taxes on the affluent. (“Raising taxes on people that are successful is not going to make people that are struggling more successful, insisted Marco Rubio recently.”) This means the money to finance the new Republican populist offensive must be conjured out of thin air.
Thus the blunt quality of Obama’s plan: he will cut taxes for the working- and middle-class by raising an equal amount from wealthy heirs and investors. Obama’s plan is not going to pass Congress, of course. Probably nothing serious can pass a Congress that still has no political or ideological incentive to cooperate with the president. The point is not to pass a law. It is to lay out, openly, the actual trade-offs involved.
On the other side, John Fund says not so fast there:
All of the proposals enjoy majority support in polls – although that support tends to fall after people weigh the price tag.
Take paid sick leave. Obama mentioned that wherever the issue was on the ballot this fall it passed when people voted on it. But he was careful not to mention that the only state where it was on the ballot was Massachusetts. Yes, the state that hasn’t sent a single Republican to the U.S. House in 20 years and consistently votes Democratic for president by about ten points more than the rest of the country. Question 4, the Massachusetts ballot measure that mandated paid sick leave in the state, did pass but with only 60 percent of the vote – meaning that after a real debate the issue might be an even split nationwide.
Also on the other side, Jonah Goldberg didn’t even want to think about any of it:
Like a lot of people, I found tonight’s speech a chore. That’s less of a criticism of Obama than it sounds. I find all State of the Unions to be tedious, particularly this late in a presidency. I do think it was better delivered than most of his State of the Union addresses. I didn’t, however, think it was particularly well-written. “The shadow of crisis has passed”? C-Minus…
Okay, but Annie Lowrey saw a completely different speech:
Tonight, we saw an Obama like the one we saw on the campaign trail – fired up, optimistic, discursive, happy-hearted, and historical. Tonight, we saw an Obama who decried Washington, but still seemed convinced in hope and change. Tonight, we saw Obama thunder, trumpet, and staccato-shout his policies, despite the nonexistent odds they have of passage. And the fact that the economy has turned around so much seemed to give him hope that the middle class would start feeling better, even if Washington never helps.
Chris Cillizza saw the same:
For his allies and even many liberals who had grown sour on him, it was a triumphant speech in which both his own soaring confidence and his dismissal of his political rivals was fitting and appropriate. For his detractors, the speech was everything they loathe about him: cocky, combative and forever campaigning. Regardless of where you land on that confident-to-cocky spectrum, one thing was very clear tonight: Obama isn’t planning to go quietly over his final two years in office. Not quietly at all.
Everyone saw that, but David Corn was not impressed:
Once upon a time, a large chunk of Americans watched the chief executive unveil his plans in these ornate circumstances. After all, there was little else to see on television for that hour or so. But in our Internet-y days, there are no more captive audiences. So the reach of any State of the Union speech is limited. Yet this address did provide Obama with what is likely to be his biggest audience of the year (unless there is an emergency, a grand history-making event, or national tragedy). And he used the opportunity to effectively restate and reinforce his foundational views. Toward the end of the speech, Obama noted, “I have no more campaigns to run. My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I’ve had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol.” And that seemed to be true. He yielded no ground to the ascendant Republicans, though he did again sidestep the depth of the opposition he has faced—and that he and his agenda will continue to face. This State of the Union address was no game-changer, but it was a signal from Obama that he will be sticking to his game.
That’s it? Josh Marshall isn’t so sure:
President Obama wanted to be a Ronald Reagan of the Center-Left in tonight’s speech, not so much focused on passing laws in the next two years (which isn’t happening regardless) as embedding a clear blueprint of progressive activism into the structure and rhetoric of American politics for years or decades to come. So he’ll make his arguments, cheer successes and vindicated predictions and promises, take aggressive executive actions to the limits of his authority. But more than anything else he’ll try to push the whole package, the logic of his administration and his policies as a touch point and reference for the future.
He was talking over and past the new GOP majorities on many, many levels.
That leaves Andrew Sullivan:
This is a speech that revealed to us the president we might have had without the extraordinary crises – foreign and domestic – he inherited. I’ve always believed in his long game and in his bent toward pragmatism over ideology. Events can still upend things, but this is a president very much shaping the agenda past his own legacy. He’s showing Hillary Clinton the way, and has the midterms to point to as the result of the defensive crouch. If his standing improves still further, he will box her in, and she’ll have to decide if she’s going to be a Wall Street tool and proto-neocon or a more populist and confident middle class agenda-setter.
That’s what this was about? This was just supposed to be a status report. But then, maybe it was.