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Obama's Audience: Democrats

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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How should we think about a president’s State of the Union proposals when he is in his final two years in office and the other party has taken solid majorities in both chambers of Congress?

If you guessed “agenda setting,” take a gold star. Presidents (like the news media) can’t change what we think, but they can change what we think about. So even if Republicans are likely to ignore what Barack Obama calls for tonight, it doesn’t mean his proposals are entirely irrelevant.

As Neil Irwin over at the Upshot argues, Obama’s speech can be read in the context of internal Democratic Party debates over policies:

The White House will surely be accused of class warfare, of pitting the interests of the affluent directly against the working class. But if other Democrats (particularly the party’s nominee for president in 2016) seize on this basic framework, of higher taxes on capital in exchange for lower taxes on labor, it will help offer a clear vision of what the Democratic Party stands for after the Obama years.

I agree – with one important caveat. The president doesn't choose his proposals in a vacuum. His agenda is the Democratic Party agenda (or one version of it), and the party constrains what Obama can do.

A party's positions are determined by competition and cooperation among all its actors – politicians, campaign and governing professionals, donors and activists, formal party officials and staff, party-aligned interest groups and the partisan press -- inside and outside of the administration.

Put another way, elected officials are constrained by the commitments they made to the party in order to win its nomination. But the fight over those positions continues between elections, too, with yearly budgets -- and the State of the Union speech that precedes the release of the president’s budget -- an obvious battleground.

Yes, the president has the single biggest vote -- he’s the single most important party actor. But the best way to think of the State of the Union is as part of a continuing process, with the results today both an outcome of party battles and a factor in the next round of defining the party.

  1. One complication: It's not just the party. While presidents care more about party-aligned groups, they also respond to pressure from independent interest groups and from within the government bureaucracy. Even for proposals that aren’t going to be adopted, the president doesn’t want to risk being undercut by unhappy executive-branch agencies. So while the party frame is a good one, it doesn’t capture everything that goes into the SOTU speech.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net