When you strip away all the layers of cockiness, preachiness and delusion in President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, you find more cockiness, preachiness and delusion underneath.
This was most obvious in the brief and buried foreign policy section. Obama declared “the shadow of crisis has passed” less than two weeks after hundreds were murdered by al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. He praised his own “smarter kind of American leadership” after being caught flat-footed by the rise of the most powerful terrorist quasi-state in history. He talked of respecting “human dignity” without mentioning the 200,000 dead (including more than 10,000 children) in Syria — which will be remembered as Obama’s Rwanda. He claimed that the Iranian nuclear program was “frozen” — a description Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez compared to “talking points that come straight out of Tehran” — as the centrifuges spin and new Iranian nuclear facilities are being constructed.
Presidential leadership on defense and foreign policy usually consists of preparing Americans for the unsought but necessary struggles of a dangerous world. Obama provides assurances of global progress and order at a minimal cost, so Americans can turn their attention within. If John F. Kennedy’s rhetoric was a trumpet, Obama’s is a lullaby.
On domestic policy, Obama’s State of the Union narrative was similar, at least on the surface. In the president’s version of recent history, he inherited a mess. He delivered new jobs, a roaring stock market, lower gasoline prices, improved shows on HBO and the best iPhone ever. Republicans opposed every useful policy advance and now want to kill the ones they didn’t manage to strangle at birth.
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This is not a message crafted for outreach. But the programmatic portion of the State of the Union has been widely misunderstood. Perhaps because of Obama’s confrontational tone, many (both supporters and critics) found the speech’s agenda to be “boldly progressive” or “unabashedly liberal.” It was different and smarter than that.
Obama’s “middle-class economics” is not the ideological love child of Elizabeth Warren and Thomas Piketty. Rather than occupying Wall Street, Obama claimed credit for Wall Street’s success. Instead of focusing on economic inequality, he emphasized economic mobility.
The tax portion of Obama’s approach is typically redistributive. Contrary to popular belief, many Republicans are open to raising additional revenue from the wealthy — if it comes in the form of loophole closing. Put another way, GOP leaders might accept taxes on consumption by the wealthy (say, by limiting the mortgage deduction for second homes), but they won’t support additional taxes on savings and investment. Obama knows this. His proposal — which includes an increase in the capital gains tax rate — seems designed to make Republican support impossible.
Yet the new ideas found in the State of the Union speech — increasing the child care tax credit, additional help to afford community college, paid maternity leave — are anything but boldly progressive. They are middle-sized proposals addressed to middle-class needs. They can be faulted for poor design or the manner in which they are funded. But they have none of the ideological ambition of the Affordable Care Act, or even his plan for universal preschool education.
I recently faulted Obama for abandoning Bill Clinton’s New Democrat ideology. But the policy approach taken in this year’s State of the Union was distinctly Clintonian. Or at least Schumerian. Last year at the National Press Club, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer argued, “When Democrats focused on health care, the average middle-class person thought, ‘The Democrats aren’t paying enough attention to me.’” Obama’s “middle-class economics” seems responsive to that critique.
Republicans have no choice but to contest this ground. Some have already begun. Read Sen. Marco Rubio’s book “American Dreams”; or listen to Mitt Romney’s recent speech at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting; or look at the website for Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise PAC. All of these prospective nominees argue that economic growth, while necessary, is not sufficient; that the cultivation of human capital is essential to individual and national success in a globalized economy; and that government has an important role in promoting equal opportunity. They are also (accurately) pointing out that the condition of middle-class families during the Obama years — measured by net worth, real wages, business ownership, homeownership — has grown worse.
Republicans have a case to make for their own version of middle-class economics. And, for the first time in a long time, they seem to want to.
To reach Michael Gerson, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.