President Barack Obama outlined a second-term domestic agenda last night packed with proposals targeting the coalitions that re-elected him, seeking to deepen his ties with them and isolate Republicans.
In a speech that called for universal preschool, additional college aid, an increase in the minimum wage, and new job-creation initiatives, Obama sketched a central role for government in boosting the middle class, with particular programs focused on young people, women and immigrants.
While Obama, 51, spoke of compromise on issues including entitlement and tax law changes, revamping immigration policy and gun laws, he continued an us-versus-them theme summoned in his inaugural address, portraying opponents of his goals as narrow-minded champions of the wealthy while arguing he is fighting for the majority of Americans.
“It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few,” Obama said in his hour-long address.
Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College political scientist and former Republican aide, said “the message Republicans in Congress hear is: ‘Here’s where I’m going -- get on board or get run over.’”
It’s an agenda that also could better position Democrats to buck the pattern of the president’s party losing seats in a midterm election. Since 1934, a second-term president’s party has gained House seats in a midterm election only once -- in 1998 when Democrats picked up five seats during the closing years of President Bill Clinton’s tenure -- according to the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who monitored the real-time responses of unmarried women to Obama’s remarks, said the group -- which comprised 23 percent of the 2012 electorate and gave Obama 67 percent of their votes -- reacted strongly to the president’s warnings about the impact of automatic spending cuts scheduled for March 1, as well as his calls for pay equity for women.
“He re-engaged one of his most important constituencies -- he spoke directly to these women tonight on key pocketbook issues,” said Page Gardner, the president of Women’s Voices, Women Vote Action Fund, which partnered with Greenberg for the dial-group. “He’s going to make sure that as we look forward to the 2014 election, he’s keeping them and he’s keeping the issues that they care about front-and-center.”
In the speech, Obama showed a determination to move quickly to push through major agenda items in the narrow time frame typically afforded to second-term presidents and without illusions about the likelihood his political opponents would help him in doing so.
“The president, rightly or wrongly, has drawn some lessons from his first term, and one is that he was much too optimistic about the possibility of bringing the parties together as one United States of America rather than one red and one blue,” said Brookings Institution scholar Bill Galston, a Clinton domestic policy adviser.
“He’s much less inclined to rely on bipartisan negotiation in Washington, and much more inclined to mount an outside-in strategy, where he takes ideas to the country and then comes back to Washington and says, ‘I have the people with me; you’d be well-advised to come with me too’,” said Galston.
Declaring the state of the union “stronger,” Obama peppered his hour-long remarks with implicit challenges to Republicans. Without offering specifics, he called on Congress to bring an end to the fiscal confrontations that have preoccupied Washington for the past two years.
Americans “have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another,” he said.
Obama said he would act on his own if Congress didn’t to combat climate change, and pointed out that even his White House rival, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, had supported indexing the minimum wage to inflation.
“Why would we be against that?” Obama said of a proposal he advocated to help struggling homeowners refinance at more favorable rates. “Why would that be a partisan issue -- helping folks refinance?”
He invoked shooting victims, including six year old children murdered in Newtown, Connecticut and former Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, still recovering from a shot to the head and seated in the chamber for his speech, to make his case for tackling gun-control legislation.
“If you want to vote no, that’s your choice, but these proposals deserve a vote,” Obama said. “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote.”
The speech will do little to mend fences between Obama and the congressional Republicans with whom he has frequently clashed. Republicans, chastened by their losses in the 2012 elections, tapped Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio, 41, of Florida, to deliver their response, and he used part of his time to accuse Obama of misleading voters and mishandling the economy at the expense of the middle class.
“His favorite attack of all is that those who don’t agree with him: they only care about rich people,” Rubio, the son of immigrants, said of Obama. “Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich; I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors.”
Obama has the upper hand for now in setting the policy agenda. Fifty-two percent of Americans approve of his job performance, according to yesterday’s Gallup Daily tracking poll, compared with a 14 percent approval rating for Congress in a Gallup survey last month.
The agenda he unveiled last night could go a long way toward mobilizing the constituencies Democrats will need to defy the midterm curse in 2014. Obama’s call for universal preschool and a higher minimum wage, for example, may appeal to women -- whom Obama won 55 percent to Romney’s 44 percent, according to exit polls -- as well as younger people, and Hispanics, whom he carried by even wider margins. The minimum wage proposal, too, is also likely to appeal to working people, especially women.
The lowest earners backed the president last year, with one exit poll showing he had backing from 60 percent of those making less than $50,000 annually and another finding he was supported by 54 percent of those earning less than $100,000.
In a fact sheet released by the White House, Obama’s team asserted that 60 percent of those who would benefit from a higher minimum wage are women.