SOTU and the Struggle for the Soul of the Democratic Party

The one thought about the SOTU Address–and not just the speech, but the general drift of things in the Obama administration since the midterms–that I haven’t expressed here or elsewhere so far is that it is increasingly apparent something’s going on behind the scenes involving the administration, Hillary Clinton, and perhaps even Obama/Clinton critics like Elizabeth Warren, that could short-circuit the “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party” before it really begins.

This hunch is not based on any inside knowledge, though it is shared by others I’ve talked to who have a good understanding of the internal dynamics of the Donkey Party circa 2015.

Think about it. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Obama to spend his time–last night, and in fact for the next two years–basking in gradually higher approval ratings based on gradually improving economic conditions. He could have focused on foreign affairs, as many lame-duck presidents do, or chosen a couple of vanity projects. But it’s not at all obvious that a guy whose economic policies are finally being vindicated would pivot to a critique of the economy that creates a whole new set of challenges–unless he’s very interested in what happens in 2016. And while I won’t pretend Obama has even come close to resolving the concerns expressed about his policies by lefty critics, there’s not much doubt he’s leaning in their direction in making inequality a major theme, and in making such specific proposals as a more redistributive approach to inheritances.

Meanwhile, the Center for American Progress, more or less Hillaryland Central, has come out with its own set of proposals for dealing with inequality. And Elizabeth Warren has ruled out a presidential run in a credible and almost certainly irreversible way.

That’s not to say everything’s peachy keen on the center-left. Obama’s going to be at odds with progressive congressional Republicans over “fast-track” trade promotion authority, which he’ll obtain, if he obtains it at all, from mostly Republican votes. It is already being noticed that his interest in beating up on malefactors of great wealth has fallen short of a direct assault on private equity managers (though he has again proposed a financial transaction tax that’s not very popular on Wall Street). And HRC is one bad hire away from arousing fresh questions about whether she’s still aligned with the financial sector or still prone to her husband’s supposed “triangulation” habit. But it sure looks to me like the fix is really in, and we’ll see more Democratic harmony than we had any reason to expect.

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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.