On Election Day 2012, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake asked swing voters what they wanted to hear from President Obama. The top answer: They wanted to know his immediate plans. Now they do, first from an inaugural address that made an unabashed case for activist government, and then in a State of the Union speech that filled in the programmatic details underlying the inaugural's promise.
The two speeches are the hallmarks of an emboldened Obama. Democratic strategist Tad Devine recalls seeing the president in a White House meeting four years ago and again in the lead-up to the State of the Union this year. The new Obama, Devine says, is "so much stronger, so resolved, so aware that the other side is engaged in full time obstruction and determined to plow right through 'em." Democratic media man Peter Fenn (who blogs for U.S. News) agrees, adding in "the time I've spent with [Obama] after the election, this guy's not fooling."
All of this has left Republicans angry and confused, like actors in a play whose counterparts suddenly won't follow the script. For 30 years the GOP had relied on big government, higher taxes, and culture war issues as scare-concepts to cow Democrats. Now they're facing a president who ran on higher taxes and won, handily. Simon Rosenberg, president of the Democratic think tank NDN, likes to say that Democrats spent years in conservative ideological jail. "Well they've left, and the jailers are upset," he says.
Consider House Speaker John Boehner's comment that Obama's inaugural address signaled that the president's focus will be "to annihilate the Republican Party" and "shove us into the dustbin of history." Obama doesn't have to shove. But he is happy to help the GOP march of its own lockstep accord into political oblivion.
Consider the issues he highlighted in the State of the Union: hiking the minimum wage, immigration reform, "modest" entitlement reforms, gun control, drawing down the troops in Afghanistan, and infrastructure spending. They have two things in common. First, polls show that each is favored by a (in some cases prodigious) majority of Americans. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg dial-tested a focus group of 44 swing voters in Colorado during the State of the Union speech and found that Obama made "significant gains on the big issues." He got his biggest positive reaction when he called for the minimum wage to be raised. Even Republican dials twitched up to 70 (on a one to 100 approval scale).
These policies not only appeal to voters broadly but have specific salience for the groups that propelled him to a comfortable re-election: women, Hispanics, young voters, and college-educated whites. For example Greenberg found that "unmarried women, a group that has been critical of the president and Democrats' fortunes, tracked closely with the Democratic line on the dial meter throughout the speech and exceeded the Democratic line several times, including when the President spoke about pay equity." Obama is making inroads with swing voters while securing his party's governing majority.
And the GOP? The other key feature of Obama's State of the Union issues set is that it is unpopular with Republican politicians and primary voters. So, for example, Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky complained in a floor speech that Obama "spoke of workers' minimum wages, instead of their maximum potential." What Obama understands and McConnell misses is that since the turn of the century, U.S. wages have become decoupled from productivity and per capita GDP. Workers are maximizing their potential with little to show for it.
After the speech, Boehner blasted Obama's "go-it-alone approach to pursue his liberal agenda." But Obama's not the one going it alone. Polls show that issue by issue, he's got majorities of the American people on his side. It's the GOP that is going it alone. Hence the State of the Union's most dramatic moment, the president's exhortation that the country's gun victims "deserve a vote!"
That's actually a deeply odd rhetorical formulation. As a general matter in American politics, voters don't get wound up over process issues—which raises a pair of interconnected questions. The first is whether this election cycle will be different, whether Obama and his party can, to practical effect, tar congressional GOP-ers as gridlock-loving obstructionists. Unwillingness to act "sets up the Republicans for being the cause of the failure," Bill Burton, a former Obama aide who ran the super PAC allied with the president during 2012, argued Wednesday. "It's such a clear contrast between where Democrats and Republicans are," he added. "Sometimes you just have to get caught trying." That's especially true with Obama's issues. "Minimum wage is very motivating for people of color, very motivating for women," observes pollster Lake who says that the issue set broadly could be critical to spur low-intensity Obama voters to the polls in the 2014 midterm elections.
The second, related, question is what will the electorate look like then? Voters in off-year cycles tend to be older and whiter than in presidential years. But Democrats hope that they can apply the sophisticated targeting and mobilizing techniques the Obama re-election campaign honed. "Our politics is changing because it's actually possible now to change the composition of the electorate," Democratic strategist Devine says. Once these modern targeting techniques "sweep into House politics … Republicans are in real trouble," he says.
He adds: "The stuff I'm talking about isn't there yet, but boy it's right at the door."
- Read the U.S. News Debate: Did Obama's State of the Union Gun Rhetoric Effectively Sell Gun Control to Congress?
- Read Ron Bonjean: Obama Declares War on the GOP in the State of the Union Speech
- Read Mort Zuckerman: How We Can End Our Modern-Day Depression