Tuesday, January 20, 2015

State of the Union: Turning the Page

As we prepare for tonight's State of the Union speech, we already know most of the ideas/proposals President Obama will talk about. And so much of the pundit chatter has moved away from what he will say to why he will say it. This is always a fascinating inquiry to watch. That's because a lot of the responses tell us more about the pundit than they do about the President.

The conventional wisdom accepted by almost everyone is that what Obama will propose tonight is a break from what he's done in the past. The centerpiece for that assumption is that he will talk about an increase in taxes on the wealthy in order to pay for programs that assist the poor and middle class.

But is this really something new for President Obama? Let me give you three examples of where he's done it before:
  1. Obamacare takes revenue mostly from the wealthy to pay for assistance for the poor and middle class - in other words, it is redistributive.
  2. The reason Republicans walked away from a Grand Bargain with President Obama is that he insisted on additional federal revenue (mostly from ending tax loopholes for corporations and the wealthy) in order to agree to their spending cuts.
  3. In the so-called "fiscal cliff" deal of 2012, President Obama insisted on continuing the Bush tax cuts for the middle class and elimination of them for the wealthy.
So what the President will propose tonight aligns very well with his approach in the past.

For those who buy into the conventional wisdom however, their rationales for why are fascinating. The Republican response is - of course - predictable.
Republicans cast Mr. Obama’s slow-motion rollout of his State of the Union agenda in recent weeks as the desperate flailing of a lame-duck president who has not come to grips with the electorate’s decision in November or the fact that the opposition now controls the Senate as well as the House. In defying reality, they said, he simply wants to return to the tax-and-spending ways of the past.

“I see this as the president returning to the theme of class warfare,” said Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois. “It may have been effective in 2012, but I don’t find it to be effective anymore. I think, frankly, he’s out of ideas if he is unwilling to work with Republicans, and I think he is unwilling to work with Republicans.”
But when it comes to the President's overall response to the 2014 midterms, I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with conservative pundit Byron York.
"The reason he is being aggressive is that he knows he can generate a response," says a well-connected Republican strategist. "When he does an executive order, what he is trying to do is generate a response so that the entire conversation is about what he did — so that he has defined the agenda."

Likewise, when Obama, facing a newly-empowered conservative Congress, uses his State of the Union speech to propose a tax plan the liberal columnist E.J. Dionne calls "genuinely redistributive," he is trying to dictate the terms of the debate with a powerful adversary. Of course Obama knows his plan is anathema to Republicans, but if they debate the president on his terms, he makes progress.
On the other side of the political spectrum, progressives are announcing for the 157th time (just kidding, I made that number up - but it has happened a lot in the last 6 years) that President Obama has FINALLY come to his senses. Tim Mak captures that one with a quote from David Greenberg.
And in previous State of the Union addresses, argued Greenberg, President Obama has laid out points of potential compromise — only to find the negotiating window shifting to the right when Republicans made stronger demands.

“Obama has made the mistake a lot over his initial years by opening with a compromise bid, and Republicans would counter with their maximum bid,” he said. “Obama may have finally figured out that it's better to open with your maximum bid.”
Spare me...please!

Here is how Jared Bernstein sees it:
For years, he [Obama] had to worry about getting growth back in place following the Great Recession, and getting major legislation—health reform, Dodd-Frank—through Congress. Those measures are in place and must be defended. The recovery, while not complete, is solidly underway.

But the inequalities of wealth, income, and even opportunity are as embedded as ever in our economy, and the goal now must be not merely to sustain the growth we have, but to craft the policy agenda that will give the middle class, and the aspiring middle class, the chance to claim their fair share of that growth.
Bingo gringo!!! Because that's exactly what the man himself said. Remember what he told Steve Inskeep a few weeks ago?
...I have spent six years now in this office. We have dealt with the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression. We have dealt with international turmoil that we haven't seen in a lot of years.

And I said at the beginning of this year that 2014 would be a breakthrough year, and it was a bumpy path.

But at the end of 2014, I could look back and say we are as well-positioned today as we have been in quite some time economically, that American leadership is more needed around the world than ever before — and that is liberating in the sense that a lot of the work that we've done is now beginning to bear fruit. And it gives me an opportunity then to start focusing on some of the other hard challenges that I didn't always have the time or the capacity to get to earlier in my presidency...

But what is true is that I'm in a position now where, with the economy relatively strong, with us having lowered the deficit, with us having strong growth and job growth, for the first time us starting to see wages ticking up, with inflation low, with energy production high — now I have the ability to focus on some long-term projects, including making sure that everybody is benefiting from this growth and not just some.
And here's how he said it in his video discussion about the upcoming SOTU speech:
Over the last six years, we have been weighed down by the legacy of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. And because of the incredible grit and resilience of the American people, America is now in a position to really turn the page. Now that we have fought our way through the crisis, how do we make sure that everybody in this country, how do we make sure that they’re sharing in this growing economy? How do we make sure that they have the tools to succeed?

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