Ostensibly, President Obama’s State of the Union speech was a call for Kumbaya, another plea for the two parties to work and reason together. But since Obama knows by now that the unreasonable Republicans would rather self-immolate than work with him, his core message last night was that he plans to pound them on the ’12 trail.
All SOTU speeches are policy wish-lists, and his was no exception. But election-year SOTU speeches are best read as political blueprints, and his was no exception. Nor did he bother to hide his true intent. If any Republicans are still in the dark about his re-election strategy, they need only read the transcript.It was basically a State of the Race speech. Obama’s 2012 theme is “fairness,” and he’s daring congressional Republicans to stand against it. (In all likelihood, they will.) He’s figuring that most Americans want reforms that will bring more fairness to the economic system, and he’s warning that if Republicans stand firm for status-quo unfairness, he’ll call them out and swing the voters his way. This is a doable strategy, given the fact that the polls consistently show majority support for fairness; in the newly-released New York Times-CBS survey, for instance, 58 percent of swing-voting independents believe that upper-income Americans aren’t paying their fair share of taxes, and 55 percent say that capital gains and dividends should be taxed the same same as income from work (a reform that would dig deep into Mitt Romney’s deep pockets). Key fighting words from the speech last night: “We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules….I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But I intend to fight obstruction with action.”Forty minutes later, while talking about reforming the tax code, he played the populist card. On gthe surface, it was just another riff about fairness. But he was really riffing about Romney – still his likeliest opponent, and a private-equity multimillionaire with a sweet 15 percent effective tax rate, thanks to a tax code that favors the rich. A key Obama passage:”Right now, because of loopholes and shelters in the tax code, a quarter of all millionaires pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households. Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary…Tax reform should follow the Buffett Rule. If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes….In fact, if you’re earning a million dollars a year, you shouldn’t get special tax subsidies or deductions. On the other hand, if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98 percent of American families, your taxes shouldn’t go up. You’re the ones struggling with rising costs and stagnant wages. You’re the ones who need relief. Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay (percentagewise) at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”His next riff on Romney was even more overt. Romney has claimed that critics of his wealth are merely envious of his success, but if he meets Obama in the autumn debates, the president will likely seek to rebut him with a message much like the one last night: “We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get a tax break I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference — like a senior on a fixed income, or a student trying to get through school, or a family trying to make ends meet. That’s not right. Americans know that’s not right.”Obama will suffer in November if Republicans succeed in framing the ’12 campaign as simply a referendum on his tenure; the jobless rate, while downticking, will likely be north of eight percent at election time, and that’s a potentially fatal albatross. What Obama sought to do last night was to frame the campaign as a choice between populist optimism (his claim that the economy is incrementally improving, that more fairness is needed to make things even better), and obstructionist pessimism (America is in decline, and the GOP won’t lift a finger to help the non-rich).Perhaps his strategy won’t work. But the Republicans helped him greatly last night, at least in terms of the optics, by sitting on their hands whenever Obama talked about fairness and suggested that the rich should sacrifice more.Obama expected that, of course. He knows that its futile to ask for cooperation, especially in an election year. (Traditionally, little gets done in election years anyway.) Toward the end of the speech, he said: “We need to end the notion that the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction; that politics is about clinging to rigid ideologies instead of building consensus around common-sense ideas.” But he recognizes – finally – that the dream is dead, and that he has no choice but to throw sharp elbows. Hence this line one minute later:”While we may not be able to bridge our biggest philosophical differences this year, we can make real progress. With or without this Congress, I will keep taking actions…”The substantive policy actions he can take without Congress are, by definition, quite limited. But the rhetorical actions he can take on the campaign trail are considerable. Republicans have been warned, and Romney has been warned. Win or lose, it’s game on. ——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1