Barack Obama wants to mainline progressivism into the bloodstream of America the way Ronald Reagan ushered in a generation of conservatism.
That’s the lofty goal of the president’s penultimate State of the Union address on Tuesday night, as his senior aides tell it. He’s stymied for the remainder of his presidency by a Republican Congress wedded to a Reaganesque mentality, but the White House views the recent spate of positive economic news as an opportunity for Obama to aggressively make the “long-term” case for embracing government as an agent to help the middle class.
“This is about something bigger than 2016,” a senior Obama administration official said before the speech. “It’s like — can we change the frame of the debate, where, like Reagan was able to basically constrain the political debate around no-new-taxes and small government, we can do the same thing around an economic philosophy that invests in the middle class of the country and asks the wealthy to pay a little more. And to beat back the politics of austerity. So that’s the long-term thinking.”
Obama has never hid his admiration for the way that Reagan, as he put it during the 2008 presidential campaign, “changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.”
Positive economic news has meant that “for really the first time people — not just smart economists — sort of realize that the steps we took and our philosophy … is working,” the official, who discussed the president’s thinking on condition of anonymity, said. “The Republicans went out and said all these horrible things, and then none of them happened.”
During his reelection campaign, Obama was vexed by the possibility that a President Mitt Romney would “catch the economy on its way up” and receive credit for the gains, the senior administration official said, adding that this scenario would have forced progressives to spend the next 20 years trying to battle the conservative supply-side economic view.
A central conundrum of the Obama presidency is that income inequality has risen to unprecedented heights, despite his redistributive policies like Obamacare and ending the upper-end Bush tax cuts. The Dow Jones averages have reached record highs and the unemployment rate has fallen to 5.6 percent, but middle class incomes have remained stagnant through the 21st century as the vast majority of the economic gains have accrued to the wealthy.
“It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come,” Obama said in his speech before a TV audience of millions. “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”
“So the verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way,” he continued, hailing the progressive safety net of “worker protections, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid” and investments in college, infrastructure and the internet. “That’s what middle-class economics is – the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”
Obama administration officials acknowledge that they face an immovable object in the new Republican-led Congress — which is wedded to Reagan’s anti-tax, anti-spending view — when it comes to his new proposals to raise taxes on high earners, cut taxes on the middle class and make community college free (along with his ongoing push to raise the federal minimum wage).
“In all honesty, he’s just playing politics,” Senate Finance Chair Orrin Hatch (R-UT) told Bloomberg TV before Obama’s speech. “It’s more and more of the same — robbing Peter to pay Paul instead of helping both Peter and Paul to survive and help this country to be on its way from a fiscal standpoint. … Right now we’re not support[ing] more taxes on the American people.”
Apart from modest steps Obama can take by executive authority, there’s little he can do other than use his bully pulpit to make an appeal and hope history vindicates him.
“I wouldn’t think of it so much as how to help us win in 2016. That is a long way from the strategic thoughts of most of us, although it’s personally important for him,” the senior administration official said, adding that Obama wants the country to learn the right lessons from the Great Recession and the recovery.