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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama Doubles Down

This item is cross-posted from ProgressiveFix.
Many conservatives hoped last night’s State of the Union Address would represent something of a white flag from President Obama. Some progressives hoped for a fiery, “populist” attack on malefactors of great wealth. Others yearned for rhetorical enchantment, a speech that would redefine messy contemporary debates according to some previously unarticulated transcendent logic.
The president did none of those things. He essentially doubled down on the policy course he had already charted, made a serious effort to re-connect it to the original themes of his presidential campaign, and sought to brush back his critics a bit. In purely political terms, the speech seemed designed to halt the panic and infighting in Democratic ranks, kick some sand in the faces of increasingly smug and scornful Republicans, and obtain a fresh hearing from the public for decisions he made at the beginning of last year if not earlier. It was, as virtually every one I spoke to last night spontaneously observed, a very “Clintonian” effort, and not just because it was long and comprehensive. It strongly resembled a couple of those late 1990s Clinton SOTUs organized on the theme of “progress not partisanship,” loaded with data points supporting the sheer reasonableness of the administration agenda and the pettiness of (unnamed) conservative foes.
Substantively, the speech broke little new ground. But while such “concessions” to “conservative ideas” as highlighting business tax cuts in the jobs bill, or making nuclear energy development part of a “clean energy” strategy, were decided on some time ago, they were probably news to many non-beltway listeners.
All in all, Obama used the SOTU as a “teachable moment” to refresh some old but important arguments. And he did that well: his reminder of Bush’s responsibility for most of the budget problems facing the country was deftly done, in the context of accepting responsibility for what’s happened fiscally on his own watch. He rearticulated once again the economic rationale for his health care and climate change initiatives, a connection that was reinforced by the subordinate placement of these subjects in the speech. And he conducted something of a mini-tutorial on the budget, and cleared up most of the misunderstandings created by his staff’s use of the word “freeze” to describe a spending cap.
Perhaps the most surprising thing in the speech was his frontal attack on the five Supreme Court justices sitting a few yards from his podium, about the possible impact of last week’s Citizens United decision liberating corporate political spending. I only wish he could have amplified this section by quoting from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s many hymns of praise for this disturbing opinion as a giant blow for free speech.
And that gets to my only real criticism of this well-planned SOTU: a lot of it was in code. A number of the digs at Republicans were clear to people who watch Washington closely, but not so much to people who don’t. For example, the president was clearly taunting congressional Republicans when he said he’d be glad to consider any ideas they had that met his list of criteria for health care reform. To someone watching who didn’t know how ridiculous contemporary conservative “thinking” on health care has become, this may have sounded less like a criticism than like a decision to reopen the whole issue to many more months of wrangling in Congress, even as he tried to urge congressional Democrats to get the job done and not “run for the hills.”
Yes, the president has to walk a fine line in dealing with public and media perceptions that both parties are equally responsible for “partisanship” and gridlock. But at some point between now and November, he needs to better connect the dots, and explain exactly whose “partisanship” is an obstacle to “progress.”
UPDATE: Nate Silver did an analysis of “buzzwords” in Obama’s speech, comparing it to those of previous presidents at similar junctures in their administrations. Unsurprisingly, Obama’s most resembled those of Bill Clinton.

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