It was his first term and President Obama was struggling. Unemployment remained high and many voters didn’t like his health care program, auto bailout, or economic stimulus package. Seventeen percent thought he was a Muslim and many others were unsure of his vision. Congressional Republicans were voting against his proposals en masse. A year before the general election, his political prospects did not look very strong.
Yet Obama cruised to re-election and now has a job approval rating in the mid-50s. The crucial turning point came in December, 2011 when the president realized he needed a clearer message and had to identify a way to distinguish his vision from that of the GOP. In a speech to voters in Osawatomie, Kansas, Obama spoke of the importance of fairness and fighting for the middle class. The problem with the economy, he said, was that voters felt the system was rigged against them and too many of the fiscal benefits were going to those at the very top.
Since that time, Obama has found his voice by emphasizing economic and political fairness. In this year’s State of the Union address, he continued this narrative. He spoke of billionaires with “high-powered accountants” and the need to invest in education and research. He complained about long voting lines and called for a commission to improve the voting process. He argued that a growing economy represented a better way to reduce the deficit than austerity politics based on slashing government programs. He called for Congress to raise the minimum wage, invest in advanced manufacturing, and reform the tax code.
On issues such as immigration, gun violence, and renewable energy, he threw down the gauntlet and dared Republicans to vote no. If they block popular proposals, he made it clear he would seek to turn the 2014 midterms into a referendum on middle class fairness. If people were wondering which Obama we would see in the second term, we now know the answer. In both his Inaugural Address and the State of the Union, he is presenting a clear choice. He is asking Republicans to work with him and if they don’t, he will go to the public and ask for a Democratic Congress.
The question facing the GOP is how they respond to this plan. On issues such as immigration reform, a number of leading Republicans have come forward with pragmatic solutions and bipartisan proposals. On problems such as gun violence, most Republicans are holding their ground and not pushing for substantial changes. If the economy continues to recover over the next year and national unemployment drops below seven percent, Obama may be on strong ground to force an electoral confrontation.
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.