I have a feeling he's not going to like this.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/Pool via Bloomberg

Obama Throws in the Towel on Congress

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
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In the first few sentences of his State of the Union address, the president congratulated members of Congress on their election victories, acknowledged that the American people had voted for change, and urged Democrats and Republicans alike to work together. It was the right message to lead with after Democrats took a drubbing from Republicans at the polls. The only trouble is, the president was Bill Clinton, and the year was 1995.

After Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, Clinton used his State of the Union address to offer an olive branch to Republicans. He praised former president Ronald Reagan and new Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. He admitted that he had made mistakes and acknowledged “the importance of humility.”

While defending core Democratic party values and victories, and promising vetoes to bills that threatened them, Clinton offered support for a litany of issues long championed by Republicans: making government smaller and more efficient; cutting taxes; curtailing unfunded mandates; reforming welfare to reward work; adopting a line-item veto; increasing defense spending; cracking down on illegal immigration; pursuing deadbeat dads; and expanding government’s authority to fight terrorism. He also offered a “middle class bill of rights” designed to appeal to Republican sensibilities.

The speech served to remind the American public that Clinton was a New Democrat, someone who understood “the illusion that there is a program for every problem.” Though Clinton would not utter his famous declaration that “the era of big government is over” until the following year, much of the rhetoric in his 1995 address, especially on welfare reform, was a thinly veiled rejection of traditional big-government liberalism. William Kristol called it “the most conservative State of the Union by a Democratic president in history.” Clinton put the new Republican Congress on notice that he would pursue a centrist agenda that valued cooperation over conflict.

On Tuesday night, President Obama took the opposite tack, giving an address that talked over the heads of Republicans, barely acknowledging their existence, no less their November victories, and defining “middle class economics” as synonymous with his own policies of the past six years. It was a speech he could have given to a Democratic Congress or convention -- the ultimate triumph of the permanent campaign that has come to define American politics, achieved by a president who has always seemed more comfortable wooing voters than legislators.

Obama’s defenders say that he is just being realistic, that there is no hope of compromise with Republicans. Yet the two years after Republicans won control of Congress in 1994 were among Clinton’s best. After standing up to Republicans who shut down the government, a public relations disaster for the party, Congress passed and Clinton signed major pieces of legislation that hiked the minimum wage, reformed welfare, expanded counterterrorism capabilities, and made health insurance more portable. Clinton had mentioned each of these issues in his 1995 State of the Union.

Today’s Republican leaders have already been through a disastrous government shutdown and seem determined to show the American people that they are capable of governing, much the same position Republicans were in by the fall of 1995. Yet since the November election, Obama has shown almost no interest in meeting them in the middle. His executive actions on immigration left the impression that he had given up on the new Congress even before it was sworn in. Last night’s speech -- which did not even urge Congress to pass an immigration bill -- hardened it.

In 1995, Clinton repositioned the Democratic Party around his own brand of centrism. Last night, Obama repositioned himself around the Democrats' traditional brand of liberalism. Clinton ultimately succeeded, both in Congress and the court of public opinion. Obama, heading into his final two years, seems willing to cede half the battle.

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:
Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net