Whatever its impact on the immediate policy debate, Obama’s speech marked a milestone in his effort to anneal the Democratic Party to that coalition’s priorities. Especially striking was how much of it seemed targeted directly at the massive and diverse millennial generation, born between 1981 and 2002. Obama addressed them repeatedly: by insisting that entitlement spending on the old must face some limits to prevent it from crowding out investment in the young; by framing climate change as a generational challenge; by pledging to provide young people with more training and to confront rising college costs; and by closing with a paean to citizenship that reflected their civic impulses. “They are the leading edge of where the country is headed ideologically as well as demographically,” one senior White House aide said.
The speech marked a capstone to a progression that began after the breakdown of Obama’s negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner during the debt-ceiling crisis in summer 2011. In those talks, Obama followed a Bill Clinton-type strategy of attempting to rebuild majority support following the GOP’s 2010 landslide by finding compromises with Republicans. But after that effort collapsed, Obama turned to the track that carried him to reelection and the well of Congress this week: seeking primarily to mobilize his coalition of the ascendant by articulating its priorities on social issues and the role of government, even at the price of provoking further resistance from right-leaning whites.