In his Washington Post column “Obama ditches his illusions about Republicans,” E. J. Dionne, Jr. provides a perceptive analysis of President Obama’s State of the Union speech and a preview of the Administration’s endgame strategy leading up to 2016. Dionne explains:
“This is good news, people.”
With those five words, President Obama made clear that he thinks it’s far more important to win a long-term argument with his partisan and ideological opponents than to pretend that they are eager to seize opportunities to work with him. He decided to deal with the Republican Party he has, not the Republican Party he wishes he had.
Those ad-libbed words followed what ranks as one of the more polemical passages ever offered in a State of the Union address. “At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious,” he declared, “that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health-care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years.”
Good news, indeed, and in telling the Republicans that all their predictions turned out to be wrong, he reminded his fellow citizens which side, which policies and which president had brought the country back.
His analysis of the nature of his political opposition, in turn, dictated the approach he took in the rest of the speech. There was no point in hedging on his wishes, constraining his hopes or compromising in advance. Earlier in his administration, he might have begun the negotiations by offering his interlocutors their asking price upfront and then moving backward from there. No more.
Dionne notes the specific reforms the President proposed: redistributive tax proposals, guaranteed sick leave for all, expanded child care, tuition-free community college, equal pay for equal work, “laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions,” as well as a free trade agreement (which unions oppose).
Dionne concludes, “Obama clearly still believes that the country is less divided than our politics allows us to be. But he is no longer drawn to the illusion that his adversaries in the other party will beat their swords into plowshares anytime soon. He is battling not just for a personal legacy but also on behalf of a perspective that he hopes the country will someday embrace.”
Many progressives feel that President Obama took too long to accept that the Republicans had no interest in bipartisan compromises. But Dionne is right that Obama’s SOTU ends the era of extending olive branches to a party more interested in destroying his presidency than helping Americans achieve economic and health security.