When President Obama steps to the podium in front of the Speaker’s chair Tuesday night, the speech he delivers will contain the most liberal promises and activist rhetoric of his presidency, progressives hope and Republicans worry.
Liberals say both good policy and electoral logic dictate a sharp move left.
They do not want to hear him seeking compromise ahead of midterm elections that are likely to be decided on turnout.
November will hinge on which side best fires up its base. So progressives want Obama to beat the base drum. There is no louder stage than the State of the Union.
“He should draw the contrast very hard” with Republicans, said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), one of the most liberal members of the House and an influential member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“While he doesn’t have to keep saying ‘Republicans’ and ‘Democrats,’ he has to show the contrast: Do you want a country that looks like this or like that?” she said.
The White House has signaled the president will do just that.
“Teeing up the ... year of action and talking about issues that progressives care most about will definitely be themes that come on Tuesday,” said one senior administration official.
Memories of 2010’s disastrous midterms color the left’s arguments. Democrats lost control of the House that year, ceding 63 seats to the GOP. Their Senate majority was also cut by six seats.
Liberals increasingly insist that a strong stand by Obama on issues that are highest on the progressive wishlist would help drive voters to the polls in November.
“Compromising with an extremist leads to bad outcomes, and I think we’ve seen that the political center has been yanked to the right in recent years,” said Anna Galland, the executive director of MoveOn.org.
“Our members were inspired on occasions when the president, from a position of moral authority, held his own rather than preemptively capitulated.”
According to exit polls, Democratic support eroded between 2008 and 2010 especially among young voters. Those ages 18 to 29 made up only 12 percent of voters in 2010 compared to 18 percent just two years earlier. The non-white share of the vote declined from 26 percent to 23 percent.
Progressives believe that an unapologetically liberal State of the Union could counteract that effect. Obama has already backed calls to lift the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour but activists want to see the president put more meat on the bones of his income inequality message.
“Democrats have been talking a big game and saying that they were really going to be fighters on income inequality,” said Neil Sroka, the communications director for Democracy for America. “Obama needs to take that head-on and show that it’s a priority for him. It needs to be more than a rhetorical priority.” Other issues could be emphasized in a bid to drive voter intensity and turnout.
The president will probably devote time to cherished Democratic goals such as action on climate change, pushing back on voting laws they say suppress minority votes, and enacting liberal immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship for the millions in America illegally.
“We have to keep fighting for that,” said Lee, referring to immigration efforts. “Looking at the House, it’s a very difficult lift but there are probably 30 Republicans who politically need to vote for it because their constituents demand it.”
But there is striking unanimity on the left that economic inequality is Democrats’ most favorable midterm battleground.
This is partly because of a belief that it has become part of the zeitgeist in a way it has not been for years.
“I think doing something about inequality is something that is in the air,” Galland said.
But it is also because of a sense that topics such as raising the minimum wage can refresh the parts of the electorate that other causes can’t reach.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said he is certain Obama will talk about abortion rights. But he added that people motivated by that issue are already likely to vote. It is the economic voters who need extra encouragement.
“There is a larger question about whether everyday working people will take the time to vote. That’s the big variable and that’s where a full-throated case on addressing economic inequality will potentially be game changing,” he said.
Tensions remain between the administration and those whom Obama’s first White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, derisively referred to as “the professional left.”
“The base has always had unrealistic expectations of what the executive branch can accomplish,” one former senior administration official said. Progressives “need a coming of age moment when they realize that this president is as good as its gonna get amidst a GOP that wants to end their way of life,” the source said.
Progressives fret Obama could say things that would dampen their base’s enthusiasm.
“If he came to the podium and said, ‘I’m going to approve the Keystone pipeline because it’s the rational thing to do’ or gave a rousing defense of his spying program, those are certainly things that don’t resonate with MoveOn members,” Galland said.
The overall effect of juicing, or depressing, liberal turnout can be overestimated. Political forecaster Harry Enten noted “the difference between a fired-up Democratic base (a la ’06, ’08 and ’12) and one that isn’t is 2-3 points.”
But that small margin could be everything in a year when control of the Senate could easily come down to one or two races in Republican-leaning states such as Louisiana and North Carolina.
Republicans believe Obama will blunder if he goes too liberal Tuesday. They say the electorate wants action not ideology.
“Starting each year with a liberal wish list hasn’t done a whole lot for him or for Americans still asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’ ” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerAn anti-government ideologue like Mulvaney shouldn't run OMB Boehner endorses DeVos for Education secretary Trump, House GOP could clash over 'Buy America' MORE (R-Ohio). “It would be nice if this year the president focused on getting things done instead of making partisan points.”
But Democrats and liberal activists brush off electoral advice from the GOP.
“We have to have a targeted approach, we have to get out the vote. Democrats have to make sure that we connect with people of color, young people, women,” Lee said. “Is it more difficult in midterms? Yes, but we have members of Congress working very hard to make sure that every vote is cast and counted.”
Obama has the power to make or break that effort on Tuesday night, some say.
“I think President Obama holds the fate of many House and Senate elections in his hands with this State of the Union,” Green said. “If he tells a solid story of the Democratic Party fighting for the little guy, that will bring people to the polls who need that kind of inspiration.
“But if he papers over differences and just talks about compromise, that will dampen enthusiasm and likely lead to some losses that could have been wins for Democrats.”