The second explanation seems even more far-fetched. Democrats embarrass Republicans when they champion benefits that Americans regard as earned: Social Security and Medicare above all. Minimum wage increases? Super-popular. But when Democrats propose outright and visible redistribution of wealth, then they are playing on terrain Republicans long ago trenched, mined, and barbed-wired. “In these challenging times, higher taxation of job-creating investment is the very last thing this country needs.” Republicans can repeat that line in their sleep, without a gaffe, all day, every day, including weekends.
If anything, in fact, the State of the Union proposals will help and strengthen Republicans—precisely by shifting debate away from issues on which Republicans are divided to the issue-set on which all Republicans agree. In fact, Obama is handing Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Chris Christie, and their fellow presidential aspirants the perfect opportunity to woo the Republican Party’s conservative voting base. The awkwardness he has created is all on his own side.
In the 2008 cycle, Hillary Clinton made clear that she would oppose tax increases on people earning less than $250,000. President Obama’s proposed abolition of tax-protected college savings would be experienced by many such people as just such a tax increase. She said she would hold the line on the capital gains tax at 20%, its rate during the Clinton administration. President Obama’s estate tax proposals would effectively raise that rate. The line Obama will reportedly draw in his State of the Union divides Clinton from him, not Republicans from the American mainstream—or from each other.
Barack Obama himself delivered the answer way back in January 2008, when a Nevada editorial board asked him about his view of the role of Ronald Reagan in American politics. "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America,” he replied, “in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.”
Obama strongly opposed George W. Bush, but when he was defining himself as a national figure, it was Bill Clinton against whom he defined himself. Clinton politics were petty and personal. “In the back and forth between Clinton and Gingrich,” he wrote, in The Audacity of Hope, “and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation—a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago—played out on the national stage.”
In 1995 Bill Clinton announced to both houses of Congress that the era of big government had ended. In 2009, Obama, speaking from the same rostrum, warned that "the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little.” At some deep level, Obama’s entire project has been a reply, not to Republican conservatism but to Democratic neoliberalism. Now, as his presidency nears its close, the wife, heir, and namesake of the leader of the neoliberals has emerged as the overwhelming favorite to lead the Democratic Party in 2016.