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.”