Prepare yourself at 9 p.m. ET for the magic that only a seventh-year State of the Union speech can create. Every SOTU is a political Groundhog Day but tonight’s looks to be more repetitive than usual — tax hikes on the rich, some whining about the Citizens United decision, a few studiously vague sentences on “progress” made in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, etc. Seventh verse, same as the first. What’s novel is the new reality in Congress and Obama’s reaction to it. Having just seen Democrats obliterated in an election which he himself sold as a referendum on his policies, The One is going to greet the Senate’s Republican majority by … doubling down on the policies that got obliterated. He calls that “playing offense.” Conservative commentators, recognizing that Obama’s proposals are going nowhere legislatively, aptly call it trolling. The more he irritates the GOP by pushing bills they want nothing to do with, the greater the chance that they’ll engage him in a war of words, supplying media oxygen for those bills. Better to have them preoccupied with rejecting his proposals than pushing popular ones on him, like Keystone approval, that he’ll be forced to reject.
So that’s what you’re in for tonight, a solid 60-75 minutes of the most powerful man in the world essentially trying to irritate his opponents because he now lacks the votes he needs to actually get his agenda passed. David Frum asks an interesting question, though: What if the GOP isn’t Obama’s only target tonight? When you look at the redistribution ideas he’s offering, like funding “free” community college by taxing the 529 savings accounts that middle-class Americans are using to pay their kids’ college tuition, it’s hard to imagine the public turning against the GOP for opposing him. But it might set a progressive benchmark that a certain not-so-progressive Democratic frontrunner might be reluctant to defy:
In the 2008 cycle, Hillary Clinton made clear that she would oppose tax increases on people earning less than $250,000. President Obama’s proposed abolition of tax-protected college savings would be experienced by many such people as just such a tax increase. She said she would hold the line on the capital gains tax at 20%, its rate during the Clinton administration. President Obama’s estate tax proposals would effectively raise that rate. The line Obama will reportedly draw in his State of the Union divides Clinton from him, not Republicans from the American mainstream—or from each other…
In 1995 Bill Clinton announced to both houses of Congress that the era of big government had ended. In 2009, Obama, speaking from the same rostrum, warned that “the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little.” At some deep level, Obama’s entire project has been a reply, not to Republican conservatism but to Democratic neoliberalism. Now, as his presidency nears its close, the wife, heir, and namesake of the leader of the neoliberals has emerged as the overwhelming favorite to lead the Democratic Party in 2016.
Almost as much as a Republican victory, a Clinton succession would punctuate the Obama presidency with a question mark. Obama’s highest priority over the next two years seems to be to convert that question mark into an exclamation point, to force Hillary Clinton to campaign and govern on his terms. Whatever happens after that, he can at least say that it was his kind of Democratic Party—not Bill Clinton’s—that won a third consecutive mandate, after having twice done what Clinton never did: win an outright majority of the presidential ballots cast.
He’s going to leave office with Obama-style leftism as the default Democratic Party agenda, not Clinton-style centrism. One question, though: Wouldn’t the threat from Elizabeth Warren have forced Hillary into this corner anyway? Even if Obama had decided against making these empty gestures towards liberal populism in tonight’s speech, Clinton’s worries about the lefty base in the primaries would have led her towards some old-fashioned progressive economic pandering anyway. She’s going to run to Obama’s right on foreign policy, to convince Americans that the first woman president is a hawk they can trust as commander-in-chief, but she’s going to run as a liberal (however grudgingly) on economic policy. Whether she remains that way for even a single day after she’s inaugurated, who knows. So maybe, in an indirect way, Warren is also a target tonight. If O left office without throwing himself behind a populist agenda, Warren would get all the credit in hindsight for pressuring Hillary to adopt one. This is his way of making sure the left’s new heartthrob doesn’t steal something he wants as part of his own legacy.
Here’s your thread in case you’re watching tonight for some reason. And good luck to Joni Ernst, who for the moment has the most thankless job in American politics.