WASHINGTON — With the American job market surging to life, President Obama plans to use his State of the Union address on Tuesday night to effectively declare victory over the economic hard times that dominated his first six years in office and advocate using the nation’s healthier finances to tackle long-deferred issues like education and income inequality.
In presenting a series of initiatives aimed at the middle class, Mr. Obama hopes to pivot finally from the politics of adversity and austerity that have frustrated him for much of his tenure. But coming off a midterm election defeat that handed full control of Congress to Republicans, the president faces long odds in actually enacting his agenda and in essence is trying to frame the debate for his remaining time in power and for the emerging 2016 contest to succeed him.
For a president entering the seventh year of his presidency, the State of the Union can be a final chance to move past difficulties and set the agenda before the next campaign swings into high gear and consumes the nation’s attention. Ronald Reagan used his to try to move past the Iran-contra scandal. Bill Clinton used his to try to move past his impeachment on charges of lying under oath about an affair with an intern. And George W. Bush used his to try to move past a disastrous year in Iraq and a midterm election “thumping.” “The improving economy is the backdrop for the speech and context for the economic debate over the next two years,” Dan Pfeiffer, Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, said Monday. “We have proof that President Obama’s strategy is working, and the Republicans now have a Chicken Little problem — all the doom and gloom they predicted did not come to pass.”
Republicans cast Mr. Obama’s slow-motion rollout of his State of the Union agenda in recent weeks as the desperate flailing of a lame-duck president who has not come to grips with the electorate’s decision in November or the fact that the opposition now controls the Senate as well as the House. In defying reality, they said, he simply wants to return to the tax-and-spending ways of the past.
“I see this as the president returning to the theme of class warfare,” said Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois. “It may have been effective in 2012, but I don’t find it to be effective anymore. I think, frankly, he’s out of ideas if he is unwilling to work with Republicans, and I think he is unwilling to work with Republicans.”
Mr. Obama has used the period since his party’s election defeat to reassert himself through a climate agreement with China, executive action to liberalize immigration rules and a diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba. His long-sagging approval ratings in polls have gone up, reaching 50 percent in a new Washington Post-ABC News survey, a nine-point jump since December, although other polls have not measured quite as big an increase.
Either way, that may owe as much to a reviving economy as anything else. Unemployment has fallen to 5.6 percent, gasoline prices are down, stock markets are up and the economy grew by 5 percent in the third quarter of last year, its fastest rate in more than a decade. For years, Mr. Obama has been cautious in welcoming positive economic news by noting that more work needed to be done to recover from the financial crash of 2008. But lately, he has been pushing the nation’s economic prospects more robustly and without as many caveats, saying it is time to move to a new stage.
“Over the last six years, we have been weighed down by the legacy of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression,” Mr. Obama said in a video posted on the White House website, previewing his State of the Union address. “And because of the incredible grit and resilience of the American people, America is now in a position to really turn the page.”
He added: “Now that we have fought our way through the crisis, how do we make sure that everybody in this country, how do we make sure that they’re sharing in this growing economy? How do we make sure that they have the tools to succeed?”
On Tuesday night, Mr. Obama will present the nation a series of proposals previewed in recent weeks that would make community college free for many students, expand paid family leave for new parents and raise taxes on the wealthy in order to cut them for middle-income families and pay for some of his initiatives.
Jared Bernstein, a former economics adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., said the politics of economic disparity are shifting, noting that Republicans like Mitt Romney and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida have been talking about the issue. “At some level, he’s saying, ‘O.K., welcome to the inequality debate,’ ” Mr. Bernstein said of the president. “ ‘What you got?’ ”
But Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director who has advised Republican leaders, said Mr. Obama may not be able to convince the country that he has made enough progress fixing the economy. “It will be an uphill battle, as his policy record on growth is not strong, the recovery is still unsatisfying and the inequality message is not popular, which is why he abandoned it so quickly after declaring it the issue of our time,” he said.
Stuart Stevens, an adviser to Mr. Romney during his 2012 presidential campaign, said Mr. Obama has no popular mandate for his latest initiatives. “We just had an election in which the president said his policies were on the ballot,” he said. “Hard to see what is different today than 60 days ago.”
In laying out his agenda, Mr. Obama has pointedly made little effort to embrace that of the new Republican majorities in Congress. While they want to approve the long-stalled Keystone XL pipeline, cut costly regulations and adjust the health care law to spare more businesses with part-time workers, Mr. Obama has vowed vetoes.
The president’s “proposals are so out of touch you have to ask if there is any point to the speech,” Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, said in a Twitter message.
Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that the president’s tax plan was “a nonstarter” that would not help businesses grow. “More government, a $ 300-plus billion tax bill from Barack Obama, is not the formula for this country to succeed,” he said.
NYT > Economy