President Obama delivered his penultimate State of the Union with renewed confidence, eager to take credit for the economy's recent growth spurt. He offered few olive branches to Republicans for their landslide victory two months earlier; articulated a panoply of liberal proposals that stand little chance of passing through Congress; and took the rosiest possible view of the economy and international landscape—even in the face of contrary evidence. In the moment, it's a savvy political play: Claim credit for an improving public mood and force Republicans on the defensive.
But despite the hoopla, recent polling shows that the public is much more in sync with the GOP's agenda than the White House's. This month's NBC/WSJ survey illustrated a striking disconnect between the president's improving approval rating (at 46 percent, up 2 points since November) and the top priorities of the American electorate. In the survey, 85 percent of voters rank "creating jobs" as a top priority, followed by defeating and dismantling ISIS (74 percent), reducing the federal deficit (71 percent), securing the border with Mexico (58 percent), and addressing Iran's nuclear program (56 percent). The last four are core GOP strengths; polls consistently show Republicans with an edge on those issues.
The items at the bottom of the priority list are all top administration priorities: closing the Guantanamo prison camp (24 percent rate as top priority), addressing the issue of climate change (34 percent), creating a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants (39 percent), and increasing the minimum wage (44 percent). It wasn't just Obama's assessment of the international stage that was disconnected from reality. It was also his assessment that the American people are with him on his agenda.
That disconnect will be driving the upcoming presidential election, which will provide a decisive verdict on the sustainability of Obama's accomplishments. Obama, as he ad-libbed in the State of the Union, couldn't help but brag that he won two elections as proof of his mandate. The GOP also won a historic number of seats in Congress, capitalizing on public anger over his policies. Rather than move to the middle and compromise with Republicans, Obama appears intent on playing to his party's progressive base in the run-up to the 2016 elections "“ and pass along that legacy to Hillary Clinton's nascent campaign. It's a gamble that will determine whether his landmark legislation will remain law, or be rolled back by a new Republican president.
Obama should recognize how much of his post-election bump is being driven by forces outside of his control. The president is eagerly taking credit for the improved economy, even though little has passed legislatively in recent years. It wasn't long ago that he was blaming GOP intransigence for the slow growth. Now he's betting his remaining political capital that the encouraging economic trends will continue into next year—hardly a guarantee, given the history of false starts in the past.
"We're going to have to see sustained growth in the number of middle-class jobs and an increase in median income before we really see attitudes about the economy turn around," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who is advising potential presidential candidate Marco Rubio. "Debates on how to get the economy going to get more well-paying middle-class jobs will remain one of the very top issues in the next presidential campaign. The depth of middle-class anxiety is so widespread."
Obama's own emphasis on "middle-class economics" demonstrated that, despite his optimism, he recognizes that many Americans are still struggling to make ends meet. But his solutions were oddly disconnected from both the economic and the political realities he faces.
Consider the lack of creativity from the administration in its signature initiative from the State of the Union: free community college tuition for everyone. For most low-income Americans, the tuition is already free or heavily subsidized. There's not a groundswell of middle-class households whose goal is to receive an associate degree. The plan wasn't accompanied by a more ambitious approach to, say, help community colleges teach certain skills that aren't taught at traditional four-year colleges. (Rubio, for instance, has proposed expanding access to career and vocational education as part of his detailed educational blueprint.)
It's merely a tuition giveaway, one that originally was partly paid for by the very middle- and upper-middle-class families that are saving money for the four-year colleges that Obama has called essential for a successful career. The plan proposed getting rid of the tax exemption on 529 college savings accounts, which have been growing in popularity, to help parents prepare for their childrens' rising education expenses. That provision was so politically tone deaf that the White House withdrew it just one week after the president introduced it.
The proposal smacked of the very redistributive schemes that dogged Democrats throughout the 1980s.
Anytime a politician promises to "lower the cost to zero," as Obama did in his address, it's worth remembering the economic maxim "there's no such thing as a free lunch." And it directly puts a squeeze on the very middle-class constituency that Obama claims to be courting. Hillary Clinton will certainly want to echo a message centered on educational opportunity, but she's probably not eager to alienate a sizable group of voters who will be up for grabs in the next election.
Clinton has been publicly supportive of the president, but he's boxed her into a corner. She can't afford to publicly break with a president whose fortunes align closely with hers. Yet she's undoubtedly aware that her odds of winning the Democratic nomination are very strong, and moving away from the center won't help her in a general election.
Indeed, even as Elizabeth Warren denies she's running for president, Team Clinton continues to be anxious about whether she jumps into the race, forcing Clinton to take positions to the left of the political sweet spot. She's focused on the wrong Democrat. For all the hype, Warren is unlikely to run and won't be the Democrat pushing Clinton to the left. It will be Obama himself.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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