Since Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 2011, President Obama has delivered four State of the Union addresses. Each has demonstrated in its own way the decreasing ability of hope to triumph over experience when it comes to the president’s dealings with congressional Republicans.
In 2011, Obama was still orator-in-chief, the leader who saw the State of the Union as his opportunity to cajole a politically divided Congress into compromise by offering high-minded preemptive concessions, such as a five-year freeze in domestic discretionary spending. He also signaled an openness to Republican priorities that included deficit reduction and tax reform.
One year later, Obama had faced down the Republican Congress over raising the debt ceiling, a fight that nearly put the federal government into default in the summer of 2011. He was still interested in compromise, though with a bit more edge. Noting that the economy had shown signs of improvement, he said in 2012, “I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum.” He added, “I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.”
By 2013, Obama had endured two full years of a Republican-led House that wanted nothing to do with his priorities, and an increasingly powerful GOP Senate minority that had thrown so much sand in the chamber’s legislative gears that little was getting done. He proposed a minimum wage increase and some deficit-neutral spending on infrastructure and education. At one point in the 2013 speech, delivered just two months after the massacre of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newton, Conn., Obama practically begged lawmakers to at least allow a vote on modest gun control measures.
In early 2014, Obama was clearly done. Persuasion, bribery, and even begging had all failed to win over congressional Republicans, so last January, he simply stated that his plan was to move forward on his own by executive action. The 2014 address really did foreshadow his plans for the coming year. Obama has been so aggressive with executive actions that Congress has decided to take him to court on charges of executive overreach.
This year, if his string of State of the Union “spoilers” as rolled out by the White House recently is a reliable indication, the president seems inclined to pretend the Republicans aren’t there at all.
After returning from a family vacation over the holidays, Obama went on the road, proposing programs and legislative actions that wouldn’t have made it through a divided Congress, much less one in which Republicans control both houses. Two years of government-funded community college for all qualifying students? Requiring business owners to give staff paid sick leave? Free universal preschool? All of these are non-starters with the GOP.
The president topped it off on Friday by releasing a new proposal that would whack the rich by increasing the tax on capital gains and dividends to 28 percent for high earners. That would pay for his programs and amount to nearly a doubling of capital gains taxes for the wealthy during Obama’s tenure. (When he took office in 2009, the rate was 15 percent. The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 created a 20 percent bracket for high earners.)
The likelihood of the 114th Congress passing any of these initiatives, much less the whole package, is effectively zero. To the White House, though, that doesn’t matter: The president isn’t really talking to the GOP with these proposals. The fact that they will go nowhere with the Republicans running Capitol Hill is a feature, not a bug.
The president is talking to voters about what Democrats stand for, and trying to do for the Democratic ticket in 2016 what he couldn’t in 2014: He’s working to rally less politically engaged voters to come to the polls for the Democrats.
Every element in his long list of pre-SOTU proposals is aimed at low- and middle-income earners, and hits issues they care about: education, tax breaks, and better working conditions. Vocal opposition from the GOP enables Democrats to create a clear distinction for voters between what the two parties ostensibly support.
Naturally, Obama has a legacy to look after, but with this Congress, he knows his options are limited. Trade deals and tax reform (of the non-Robin Hood variety) are both doable with Republicans in charge, and would be substantive achievements for a president nearing the end of his term.
They also make terrible stump speech material. The only groups that get exercised about trade deals are the increasingly powerless labor unions representing industrial workers. And tax reform, should it occur, would be so riddled with compromises by both major parties that neither would gain a significant advantage in the public eye.
So yes, Congress will assemble this evening – and President Obama will deliver his address. He just won’t be talking to the lawmakers sitting in front of him.
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