Guides to the president’s State of the Union address are a dime a dozen. The annual ritual has even spawned drinking games: a shot for every time the president gets a standing O from both parties if you want to stay sober, one for every partisan ovation if you want to overindulge. Bets are placed: Will the president say “middle class” more than Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers says “Obamacare” in delivering the Republican response? What’s the over/under on dispirited standing ovations by House Speaker John Boehner sitting behind the president?
Here, for those who will follow the speech, is a people’s scorecard: what progressives might look for in the speech.
1. Where did extreme inequality come from?
The biggest test for the president is less the agenda he details than the explanation he provides on why this economy isn’t working for working people. His greatest power is his pulpit, and, barring calamity, this address is the biggest congregation he’ll speak to this year. And here he could frame the debate, not just for the next months, but for the next years.
Is he in passive voice? Did inequality just happen? Did globalization and technology cause it? This is the elite position. Bad things have happened; no one is responsible.
Or does he lay out the real deal? As Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren puts it, “they rigged the rules.” Corporations waged war on unions. Conservatives in power cut taxes on the rich, raised them on work, and cut the minimum wage through inflation. Multinational corporations and banks set up taxes and trade and the strong dollar to profit from shipping good jobs abroad rather than goods. Entrenched interests from Big Oil to Big Pharma pocketed massive subsidies from taxpayers while even the basics in education – from universal preschool to affordable college – were neglected. The powerful cleaned up while the rest of us struggled to stay afloat.
The president doesn’t have to do the full analysis, but he will do a real disservice if he pretends that inequality and a declining middle class are something that just happened to us rather than something that was done to us.
2. Does he sell the economy or go after Republicans for sabotaging it?
The president aches to sell this economy – millions of new jobs, months of jobs growth, best recovery in the industrial world, fastest deficit reduction since World War II. But Americans overwhelmingly think we are on the wrong track. Jobs are scarce; over 20 million are still in need of full-time work. Kids are graduating from high school and college and sitting on the couch. Wages aren’t keeping up with costs. Millions of homes are still underwater. And austerity is the problem, not the solution.
The reality is that Washington’s austerity budgets have sabotaged the recovery. Republicans have stood in the way. They blocked every jobs program after the original recovery act, refused even to fund rebuilding vital infrastructure, exacted the inane sequester cuts, let the jobless benefits expire, shut down the government after threatening to do so repeatedly.
The president has to decide. Is he trying to sell this economy or making it clear who is getting in the way? Are Democrats repeating the mistakes of 2010, when the White House thought recovery summer was coming and abandoned any jobs program, or are they ready to take on Republican obstruction?
3. What issues are teed up to challenge Republicans?
Extending jobless benefits, raising the minimum wage and passing comprehensive immigration reform are the centerpiece. Here Democrats are united and Republican obstruction offends majority opinion.
Then the question does the president add more? Does he push universal pre-K and demand congressional action? Does he emphasize paycheck fairness, or surprise with a demand for paid family leave, elevating the agenda that House leader Pelosi has been championing? Does he demand action on a major program to build America, now enjoying support from both labor and the business community? Does he demand an increase in R&D and tax credits for new energy, putting Republicans in the box of blocking jobs while ignoring the threat of climate change?
4. What issues split Democrats?
Does the president push for fast track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal? Those are opposed by virtually every Democrat with a clue. Does he repeat his call for corporate tax reform that is “revenue neutral,” a preemptive concession to conservatives that doesn’t make sense? Or worse, does he sign on to the utterly corrupt scheme to give a huge tax break to multinationals that have parked some $2 trillion abroad to avoid taxes? Does he repeat his politically suicidal support for cutting Social Security benefits with the chained CPI?
How much the president decides to split Democrats or the Democratic base could be telling on the 2014 congressional elections.
5. What is he going to do on his own?
Will the president be bold about acting with his own “pen,” or will he avoid challenging Republican legislators to their face? The issues teed up for action could include:
• A good jobs initiative, giving priority in government procurement to employers that pay a living wage and adhere to labor and workplace laws. (There are news reports that he is already committed to imposing a $10.10 minimum wage on new federal contracts.)
• A renewed crackdown on tax avoidance by major corporations and individuals parking money abroad.
• Action on climate change, including a big push on retrofitting all federal buildings and setting new standards on federal procurement policies.
• Election reform, embracing the calls of states for allowing federal agencies to distribute voter registration information while denouncing the efforts to restrict the vote.
• Removing all nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert, while kick-starting new efforts to reduce nuclear weapons arsenals.
6. What is the defense of Obamacare?
Obamacare — the Affordable Care Act — can’t and shouldn’t be avoided. Republicans are making it the centerpiece of their attack on Democrats.
The president should take that attack on boldly and directly.
Yes, apologize for the bollixed rollout of the health care exchanges. Admit that there will be more aggravations to come. But then come down hard on the benefits — the millions who now have affordable coverage; the security that if you change jobs, you can still get health care; the obscenity that for partisan advantage Republican governors are depriving their most vulnerable of affordable coverage under expanded Medicare; the outrage that Republicans offer only constant obstruction, with no alternative and no suggestions on how to make the law work better.
Obama should be positive — but not take much time on this. Republicans will drop the theme when it is revealed to have little power among swing voters — and they will focus instead on the economy.
7. How foreign is foreign policy to the speech?
Bread-and-butter issues will dominate. The major question is whether foreign policy gets more than a passing nod.
With the National Security Agency debacle, the Syrian civil war, the complicated Iranian deal, the messes in Afghanistan and Iraq – there is much that should be explained and little that can be racked up as a victory. The president should claim some credit for getting us out of two wars and keeping us out of two others, but probably not in this speech.