SOTU Day-After Thoughts

Well, don’t know about you, but I’m happy to stand by my initial reactions to the State of the Union Address. It was by no means perfect: there were several areas where the rhetoric wasn’t matched by what the president actually proposed to do (e.g., on election reform, where he’s proposing another bipartisan commission, when the solution, national election standards, is obvious to everybody), and a few less-than-skilful evasions (e.g., promising to make his administration “even more transparent” in its counter-terrorism efforts–hah!).

But all in all, it was a successful Big Speech, which left Republicans all but spluttering incoherently. The GOP’s response reminded me an awful lot of how they used to behave when Bill Clinton was president, which may not be a coincidence, since a lot of the policy content was right out of the unfulfilled Clinton playbook–something to remember before adjudging Obama’s current direction as drastically liberal. Indexing the minimum wage to inflation has been a consensus Democratic idea for at least two decades. The closely associated concept that public policies should produce after-tax income for working families at least above the federal poverty line was a Clinton staple, expressed exactly the way Obama did last night. Universal pre-K was something progressives debated–not the whether, but the how–in the 2000 presidential cycle. And the idea that made deficit hawks from both parties so apoplectic last night–that more aggressive government intervention in the health care marketplace is the actual key to “entitlement reform” and thus long-term deficit reduction–has been Obama’s line since before enactment of the Affordable Care Act.

I did wonder last night if Obama’s approach to the opposition–using the language of bipartisanship while articulating policies he knows full well Republicans will almost universally oppose–might be too subtle for either the consensus-seeking “center” of public opinion or the confrontation-hungy Democratic “base.” But the Republican response–both planned and unplanned–made that concern less urgent. By its spending-cuts-only demands within a deficit-reduction-only stance on fiscal and economic issues, the GOP made it easy for Obama to sound conciliatory without sacrificing partisan differentiation. This morning Bill Galston suggested Obama was “gambling his presidency” on an effort to force Republicans to change their positioning via the blunt instrument of public opinion (and ultimately electoral defeat). Before and after the State of the Union Address, Republicans left him little choice on that matter.

Anyone imagining there is some sort of “moderate Republicanism” in the wings that Democratic charity can vault into control of the GOP should watch Marco Rubio’s official response last night and pay attention to something other than his water-guzzling. This is the guy who was supposed to offer a “reformed” Republicanism with greater appeal than Paul Ryan’s Randian budget-cutting or Rand Paul’s unvarnished Tea Party extremism. Yet his speech was almost nothing other than a repetitive rejection of the power of the public sector to play any positive role in national life other than at the Pentagon.

I don’t know exactly where Obama’s speech leaves us. Yes, it got pretty good ratings in the snap polls. The reaction from Democrats indicates I may have been wrong to think he was being too conciliatory to the opposition. It’s more likely than ever that the sequester will go forward, followed by a government shutdown, unless (and this is possible) congressional Republicans decide just to defer all the fiscal conflicts until after the midterms. Obama will probably get his vote on a threadbare gun regulation bill. Immigration reform will slowly move towards enactment as Republicans try to convince their nativist wing it’s politically non-negotiable. Obamacare will be implemented, albeit unevenly thanks to GOP sabotage in Washington and in the states.

But anyone pining for a different trajectory, whether it was some magical consensus with an imaginary GOP, or an equally magical vanquishing of the partisan foe by sheer force of will, needs to realize this is the standoff we’ve been in since 2008 and will remain in at least until 2016. Obama’s dealing with it pretty well, all things considered. And last night’s speech was a better step forward than most.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.