President Obama kicked off what he refers to as the fourth quarter of his presidency with a self-assured State of the Union address that detailed a pragmatic progressive agenda—one that could influence much of this year’s wrangling in DC and all of next year’s presidential race. In so doing, Obama rejected the lame-duck status that Republicans were hoping he’d embrace.
The president’s rhetoric was often bolder than his proposals. Yet there’s good reason to cheer an address that recognizes that any serious effort to take on income inequality must redistribute some of the wealth that has been locked up by the billionaire class. With common-sense proposals to hike capital-gains taxes and close loopholes in order to fund tax breaks for working families and provide free access to community college, Obama has offered an appealing alternative to the GOP’s austerity agenda.
Unfortunately, Obama will be playing his fourth quarter against a fiercely conservative Congress. If there was any question of the difficulties he’ll face, Republicans confirmed their rigidity by choosing a Koch brothers acolyte, Senator Joni Ernst, to reject Obama’s appeal. Indeed, the one initiative that most excites Republicans—granting the president fast-track authority to negotiate trade agreements—is also the one on which both Obama and Republicans are wrong.
So what’s the point of proposing good ideas to stone-faced Republicans disinclined to embrace any of them? The answer has a little to do with 2015 and a lot to do with 2016. Since Obama adopted a more activist approach after the dismal midterm results, his approval ratings have spiked. Smart moves to ease the circumstances of immigrant families, defend net neutrality, restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, and develop global alliances to address climate change have proven popular with Obama’s base as well as broader groups of voters. An improving economy has restored the president’s political swagger.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell wants Obama to stop acting “like he’s still running for office” and start compromising. But why should Obama take advice from an opposition leader? Why not take cues from presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, who responded to midterm setbacks by seizing the bully pulpit? On some issues—raising the minimum wage, expanding access to education, investing in infrastructure—Obama might generate enough popular pressure to get even this Congress to take modest steps in the right direction. On others, such as defending net neutrality and clearing the way for “public option” alternatives to telecommunications monopolies, he can create cover for the FCC and other regulators. On issues such as blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, defending abortion rights and opposing more sanctions against Iran, he can generate support for vetoes—and energize grassroots activists to keep wavering Democrats in line when the override votes are scheduled. Even on issues where he and Congress are likely to remain at odds—including his plan to increase capital-gains taxes and close the loopholes that shelter the rich from fair taxation—Obama can put himself and his party on the right side of history.
That may not get him immediate legislative wins, but it could build the necessary momentum to frame the 2016 election debate. In so doing, he could set the stage for electing a Democratic president and Senate and develop a governing trajectory in which—as with FDR and Truman—initiatives begun by one president are continued by the next. By rejecting lame-duck timidity, Obama can make his fourth quarter the pivot point in what he hails as “the work of remaking America.”