One can already hear the catcalls from the early release of the centerpiece of President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union speech. His focus on an explicit redistribution of income through the tax code from the top 1 percent to the 99 percent is hardly a basis of legislative cooperation with the Republican Congress during the last two years of his presidency. Instead of seeking common ground to set the stage for bipartisan cooperation, he will use the opportunity to sharpen differences between the parties, particularly on taxing the wealthy.
And a good thing he has made that choice. Except for the handful of matters on which legislative action cannot be avoided (such as funding the government, extending the debt ceiling, and reauthorizing such essential government activities as defense and infrastructure) or that manage to stay below the surface of ideological or partisan conflict, there is no potential for productive cooperation during this period of divided party government. The President’s public embrace of a policy is usually sufficient to ensure overwhelming Republican opposition.
His dreams of a postpartisan politics were naïve when first articulated in 2004 and shattered shortly after coming to the White House. This speech is the latest in a series of actions reflecting his acceptance of that reality and his determination to make the most of the leverage for leadership available to him.
A stronger economy opens the way for a more ambitious concentration on stagnant middle class wages and inequality of economic opportunity. Solutions to these problems are substantively vexing and politically daunting, but little progress is possible without increased public investments and a more productive use of the tax code. That will require a different politics—with an altered public philosophy, a Republican Party less driven by an indiscriminate quest for smaller and weaker government, and a Democratic Party willing and able to restore purpose and capacity to public service.
President Obama’s speech seems likely to be a constructive step in that direction.