Today's American right is burdened with a highly specialized and hyper-amplified sense of outrage. That outrage was triggered during this week's State of the Union speech, especially by the president's off-the-cuff response to a group of Republicans who sarcastically applauded the line, “I have no more campaigns to run.”
“I know,” the President replied, “because I won both of them.”
Cue the indignation. A conservative named Ben Shapiro, whose tweet was reproduced in Heritage's Daily Signal, offered a typically huffy reaction. “What a classy guy,” snipped Shapiro (who presumably feels that interrupting the President of the United States with sarcastic applause is “classy”).
President Obama gave a stirring speech, although at times he still seems like a reluctant populist warrior. The ideas in his talk that roused populist emotion can't possibly pass this Congress, while the only one that could pass – the “TPP” trade agreement – would be disastrous.
Rhetorically, “middle-class economics” is neither a rousing phrase nor an inspirational theme. It rings of accountancy. It lacks a deeper moral resonance, a call to justice or to our greater selves.
But Obama is once again talking more or less like the kind of president his critics on the left have always wanted him to be – one who focuses less on process (does the public really care how nicely legislators get along?) and more on offering a clear alternative to the failed policies of the center-right.
That's the attitude that gave the president those two victories in the first place. Republicans need to deal with that fact. So do the president and his party, come to think of it.
Not that the Republicans feel that way, of course. “Probably not helpful when you rub the other guy's nose in the dirt a little bit,” said Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who has apparently never been exposed to the concept of “asking for it.”
“If the president sticks to the tone that he chose tonight – if he sticks to anger and defiance toward the American voters, then perhaps he will veto bill after bill after bill,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, adding without apparent irony: “But if he chooses to embrace and reveling in gridlock and obstructionism, that will be an unfortunate choice ...”
GOP chief deputy whip Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina had the most sensible response of any Republican. It was delivered, according to Talking Points Memo, as he was “actively avoiding reporters.” When asked for his response to Obama's remark he replied: “It's, uh – it's factually accurate.”
Yes, it is.
The fact is, President Obama won two elections against the Republicans. He should, in the parlance of the day, “own it” more often. When he does, however, the right usually tends to get very agitated, and this week was no different. A top Republican aide complained about the speech to Slate. “It was long. Defiant. Untethered from reality,” the aide said.
Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa delivered the GOP response to the State of the Union with an animatronic style and very little substance. But she did say this: “We heard the message you sent in November—loud and clear. And now we’re getting to work to change the direction Washington has been taking our country.”
That's a claim the far-right Republicans will be repeating over and over in the coming months and years: America has given us a mandate. Voters sent a “message,” and that's the new political “reality.” This claim will become their mantra.
Unfortunately for them, it's nonsense.
Winning from the Left
The numbers tell the real story. Barack Obama won the presidency twice, with a clear majority each time. He's the first Democrat to do that since FDR. How did he do it? In 2008, Barack Obama presented himself as the candidate of progressive change. He defeated Hillary Clinton in the primaries and John McCain in the general election by promising to break away from the policies of the past.
Candidate Obama, contrary to the recollections of some, was not just a progressive in style. He also embraced many progressive policies. He initially rejected the idea, brewed up in a conservative think tank, of an “individual mandate” on health care (a proposal he later embraced). He opposed a tax on high-cost health plans (which he also later embraced) and backed a public option. He presented himself as the candidate who would rein in Wall Street and restore economic justice.
President Obama tilted considerably further to the right of Candidate Obama, as we now know. He embraced the austerity psychology of deficits and reversed many of his domestic (and foreign policy) positions.
Two years later he found himself foundering in the polls and confronted by the populist upsurge of the Occupy movement. Obama tacked leftward again in 2012, emphasizing more stimulus spending on jobs and growth. That led to a rise in the poll numbers, and his second electoral victory.
Outperforming the Republicans by a Long Shot
Let's put Obama's victories, and those of his congressional opponents, in perspective. The big news in 2014's election – the “message” Joni Ernst says “we heard” – was the Republicans winning back the Senate. But Democrats won 103 million votes in that election, to the Republicans' 98 million. That's five million more votes for the “losers.”
What's the message there?
With 61.6 percent of the electorate showing up to vote, Barack Obama won 52.9 percent of the popular vote in 2008. He won 51.1 percent of the vote in 2012, with 58.2 percent voting.
Turnout in the 2014 election was only 36.3 percent. That was the lowest in 72 years, since the election of 1942 – at a time when millions of Americans were on active military duty in World War II. Thanks to gerrymandering and other factors, Republicans in the House won 57 percent of the seats but only 51 percent of the relatively few votes that were cast.
How could the voters have sent Joni Ernst and her colleagues a message that they “heard loud and clear”? Their victories, such as they were, were ambiguous at best. And with turnout that low, democracy barely spoke above a whisper.
"Left” Ideas Win
GOP operative Brad Dayspring, who was an aide for former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, tweeted that “if Democrats would have run (sic) on the tax hikes, regulations, et al Obama proposed in SOTU, they'd have lost even more Senate seats.”
Actually, that's exactly what Obama did run on – and he won by far bigger margins than the Republicans did last year. If more Democrats had run on that platform in 2014, they might not have fared so poorly.
Approval ratings tell the rest of the story. The president's numbers have risen in recent weeks, as the economy improves – and as he continues to embrace more populist rhetoric and proposals, including his new tax proposals and his executive actions on the minimum wage.
The CBS News/Washington Post poll showed Obama with a 50 percent approval rating this week, while Gallup had him at 46 percent. While not extraordinary, that's statistically identical to Ronald Reagan's popularity at the same point in his presidency.
Republicans in Congress, on the other hand, are pretty much despised. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted last week, showed congressional Republicans with an approval rating of only 23 percent.
There's quite a “message” in those numbers, Sen. Ernst, but it's not one you're going to like.
The nation was hungry for change in 2008, and Obama rode that trend to victory. The Occupy movement pushed him to the left, at least rhetorically, and helped him craft a winning message for 2012. And now, faced by pressure from “inside” progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and a range of “outside” progressive groups, he's finding a winning message again.
Not that messaging is enough. There will need to be more concrete action, including more executive orders, along with proposals that reflect a broader and bolder vision. He'll have to stop undercutting his own proposals by pushing for job-killing trade agreements and using his senior aides to promote corporate tax cut deals with far-right conservatives like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
There is an opportunity to reshape the electorate by bringing disenfranchised voters back to the polls – but that won't be accomplished by tinkering at the margins, or with words and actions that don't match up.
"People Deserve a Choice."
On one point, at least, I find myself in complete agreement with Paul Ryan. In his reaction to the State of the Union, Ryan vowed that House Republicans would send a numbers of bills to the president's desk.
“Some of these bills he will maybe sign,” said Ryan, “a lot of them he probably won't. But nevertheless, people deserve a choice and they want to see options. But we as Republicans are going to show people who we are, what we believe in, and how we want to get this country forward (sic).”
People do deserve a choice – between two very different visions of the nation's future. The public doesn't agree with Republicans on most economic issues, and a series of bills from the House could help voters see those differences more clearly. For their part, Democrats must provide bolder and stronger alternatives to the “bipartisan” consensus that has led this country rightward and has accelerated wealth inequality for decades.
The president and his party should own their victories, along with the ideas – and the movement – that made them possible. If they do, they're likely to see more victories in the years to come. And Republicans will just have to deal with it.
This post has been updated to correct a reference to previous presidential election results.