“THERE is much progress to report,” Barack Obama stated with satisfaction at the beginning of his state-of-the-union address. He was referring to the improving health of the economy and the diminishing number of American soldiers in harm’s way abroad. But he might just as well have been speaking of his strategy for facing down Republican opposition in a time of divided government.During last year’s election campaign, a line in the president’s standard stump speech decried the idea of cutting spending on popular government programmes, “while asking nothing” from the richest Americans. This depiction of himself as the champion of ordinary Americans, and the Republicans as hand-maidens to the rich, was very effective. It not only helped him to win a second term, but also prompted the Republicans in Congress to acquiesce to his demand for higher taxes on the rich at the beginning of the year, for fear of living up to the president’s jibes.
No wonder, then, that Mr Obama has returned to the theme. In fact, he used exactly the same line in his address to Congress, modified only by a single word: “more”. “We can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful,” he intoned. The implication was that Republicans should agree to another tax increase in exchange for spending cuts that together would help stabilise America’s ballooning debt and avert the various fiscal stand-offs that loom. The president, it seems, has concluded that he can only get what he wants out of his political adversaries by rallying public opinion to his side, and that accusing them of coddling the rich is the easiest way to do it.
Thus instead of striking a conciliatory tone and proposing compromises, as he did throughout much of his first term, Mr Obama laid out an unashamedly partisan agenda. He reiterated past calls not just for higher taxes on the rich, but also for more restrictive gun laws and for concerted action to slow climate change—all ideas which Republicans abhor, and which will therefore struggle to make headway in the House of Representatives, which is under Republican control.
To his past demands Mr Obama added some new suggestions which are bound to be unpopular with Republicans, such as raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation. He also talked about making it easier to vote, not a popular cause on the right. On top of all this came various proposals which, while not especially controversial in themselves, sounded rather expensive. The president said he wants to ensure universal access to pre-school, and to expand vocational training in high school, and to set up a network of institutes promoting manufacturing and to create a tax credit for hiring the long-term unemployed, among other new schemes. All of this, he promised, would not add a dime to the deficit, although he provided no details of how it would be paid for.
Republicans immediately pointed out that the public debt has grown by 58.4 trillion dimes on Mr Obama’s watch. How could a man with such a record be trusted, they asked. Marco Rubio, a senator from Florida who gave the Republican rebuttal to the president’s speech, complained, “his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.” Referring to his own, working-class parents, Mr Rubio rejected the idea that the Republicans were the party of the rich and accused the president of being obsessed with raising taxes.
Mr Rubio made all this sound plausible, but Mr Obama has a much bigger bullhorn. No sooner had he finished his speech than he joined an online call with supporters. He is due to hold a series of rallies over the coming days to press his case. The president seems to see his ongoing stand-off with the Republicans over the budget as a win-win. Either they back down, and he gets the concessions he wants on policy, or they stand firm, and he gets to accuse them of recalcitrance. For a president who spent much of his first term courting Republicans without success, that must feel like progress.
(Photo credit: AFP)
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