President Obama’s State of the Union address was premised on two political bets: that there’s a broad national appetite, spanning conservative and liberal ideologies, for certain populist reforms; and that Republicans in Congress are too deeply committed to opposing his agenda to back those reforms along side him.
His speech was peppered with the sorts of proposals that play well across the country. But after executing a three year plan of partisan opposition to his full agenda, Republicans can’t possibly support them — and that puts them on the steep side of an election Obama is framing while Republican presidential hopefuls tear each other down.
It was also sharp-elbowed. It read in a way as a series of critiques of the GOP’s most prominent rhetorical attacks on Democratic priorities, and as a piecemeal rebuttal of the talking points his most likely general election opponent Mitt Romney has levied against him in a bid to shore up support among Republican base voters.
Romney has raised eyebrows for opposing the auto-industry bailout. In his address, Obama chided, “[s]ome even said we should let it die.” This is largely true of many Republicans in Congress, who could not bring themselves to applaud a proposal to reverse tax incentives that encourage outsourcing and discourage repatriating jobs to the U.S.
Where Romney has called for allowing the foreclosure crisis to run its course, Obama said that “responsible homeowners shouldn’t have to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom to get some relief,” before introducing a mortgage modification plan to Congress that will give “every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year…by refinancing at historically low interest rates,” which was met with silence by the GOP.
Perhaps most famously, Romney has suggested that public appeals for addressing inequality and bringing equity to the tax code evince envy on the part of advocates who have pressed those issues into the national dialogue.
“When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich,” Obama retorted. “It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks 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.”
Republicans grimaced at this, too, as they did when he gave policy shape to the Buffett Rule, “If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes.”
GOP leaders spent Tuesday — and really the last several months — preparing for Obama to take this turn.
On the Senate floor, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Obama’s “goal isn’t to conquer the nation’s problems. It’s to conquer Republicans.”
“This election’s going to be a referendum on the president’s economic policies,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters Tuesday.
That’s the battle for public perception that will play out over the next several months — between Obama’s calls for fairness and Republican reminders of people’s current woes, implicitly Obama’s fault they’ll say. If Republicans lose that battle they’ll find themselves flailing in the general election with nothing forward looking to offer voters. That’s the bet Obama made tonight.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.