President Obama kicked off what he refers to as “the fourth quarter” of his presidency with a State of the Union address that detailed a pragmatic progressive agenda with the potential to influence much of this year’s DC wrangling and all of next year’s presidential race. In so doing, Obama rejected the “lame-duck” status his Republican rivals were desperately hoping he would accept. The president’s rhetoric was often bolder than his specific proposals; and this was certainly not the “very European” manifesto that New York Times columnist David Brooks imagined in his post-speech assessment for PBS.
Yet there is good reason to cheer any address that recognizes, however cautiously, that a serious effort to address income inequality must redistribute some of the wealth that has been locked up by the billionaire class and their banks. At the very least, with proposals to hike capital gains taxes and close loopholes in order to fund tax breaks for working families and provide free access to community colleges, Obama has offered up an appealing alternative to the relentless austerity agenda of Republican stalwarts such as House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan.
Unfortunately, Obama’s playing this fourth quarter against the most conservative Congress of his presidency. If there was any question of the difficulty the president will face in advancing proposals for taxing the rich, regulating too-big banks, funding free community-college education and making real the democratic promise of the Internet, leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate confirmed their rigidity by handing State of the Union “response” duties off to Iowa Senator Joni Ernst. An acolyte of the right-wing Koch brothers, Ernst’s answer to Obama’s appeals for cooperation on behalf of the common good could essentially be translated as “not gonna happen.” Indeed, the major initiative from the president’s sixth State of the Union address that most excites newly empowered Republicans—granting the president “fast track” authority to negotiate corporate-friendly “free trade” agreements—is the major initiative on which both the president and the Republicans are most wrong.
So what’s the point of a reasonably progressive, and at times strikingly populist, State of the Union address delivered to stone-faced Republicans? Aside from inspiring justified grumbling among progressives about the president’s timing—“Where was this Obama the last six years?—what comes of a presidential address that proposes good ideas to a Congress that is 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 and progressive approach in the aftermath of what for Democrats was a disastrous 2014 midterm election cycle, his approval ratings have spiked. Aggressive moves to ease the circumstances of immigrant families, defend net neutrality, end the embargo against Cuba and develop global alliances to address climate change have proven popular with Obama’s base, and an improving economy is helping to restore some of the president’s political swagger. That bugs Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who says, “Any president in this situation has a choice. He can sort of act like he’s still running for office or he can focus on the things that we have a chance to reach an agreement on.”
McConnell obviously hopes the president will acquiesce. But why should Obama take advice from a fierce Republican partisan who proudly serves as Wall Street’s man on Capitol Hill? Why shouldn’t Obama take his cue from previous presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, who responded to midterm setbacks by seizing the bully pulpit to promote agendas that might prove to be more popular with the American people than the congressional opposition? On some issues—raising the minimum wage, developing paid sick-leave protections, expanding access to education, investing in infrastructure—he might be able to generate enough popular pressure to get even this Congress to take modest steps in the right direction. On other issues, such as defending net neutrality and clearing the way for municipalities to develop broadband Internet service as a high-speed, low-cost “public option” alternative to telecommunications monopolies, he can create cover for the Federal Communications Commission and other regulators to do the right thing. On issues such as blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, defending abortion rights and blocking ill-thought sanctions against Iran, he can generate support for vetoes—and energize grassroots activists to keep wavering Democrats in line when the inevitable House and Senate override votes are scheduled.
Even on issues where he and the Congress are likely to remain aggressively at odds, including his centerpiece plan to increase taxes on capital gains and close loopholes that currently shelter America’s wealthiest families from fair taxation, Obama can position himself and his party on the right side of history.
That may not get Obama immediate legislative wins in the fight to address income inequality. But if he uses his bully pulpit to forge a genuine economic-justice message—and if he avoids the coalition-splintering damage that would be done by engaging in a foolhardy push for “fast track” (and the inevitable compromises of principle and policy that go with attempts to enact unpopular trade deals)—he could build sufficient momentum to frame the 2016 election debate . In so doing, the president could set the stage for electing a new Democratic president, restoring Democratic control of the Senate and developing a governing trajectory where—as with FDR and Truman, and as with Reagan and George H.W. Bush—initiatives begun by one president are completed by the next. In such a scenario, this president can reject the lame-duck status to which McConnell so hopes to consign him and make his “fourth quarter” an essential pivot point in what Obama hails as “the work of rebuilding America.”