President Obama, no longer handcuffed by worries about vulnerable red-state Democratic senators, has been putting Republicans on their back foot.
The GOP hoped Obama would be humbled by the midterm elections that saw Democrats swept from power in the Senate.
Instead, when Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress completely controlled by the GOP on Tuesday, Republicans will see a confident Obama who is bullish about his own approval ratings and no longer worried about anyone else’s reelection.
The GOP will be defending 24 Senate seats in 2016, compared to 10 for Democrats. This includes GOP senators in states Obama has previously carried, such as Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.
This is a reversal from 2014, when Obama repeatedly calibrated his political messaging for vulnerable Senate Democrats running in deep-red states such as Arkansas, Alaska and Louisiana, where incumbent Democrats fell in November.
“He is a political Prometheus unbound. Democrats are not in control of the Senate, he’s not running for reelection,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday showed Obama’s approval rating has ticked up 9 points since last month to 50 percent, the highest in nearly two years.
Freed from having to worry about fellow Democrats, Obama has made a string of bold decisions, including a new call for higher taxes on the wealthy that will be a centerpiece of Tuesday’s speech.
The Post/ABC poll suggested much of Obama’s improved approval rating comes from the enthusiasm of Hispanic voters, who approve of the president’s moves to prevent the deportations of millions of people.
Obama’s actions on immigration have also forced the GOP to scramble while highlighting divisions among Republicans.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellUnder pressure, Dems hold back Gorsuch support Overnight Healthcare: Trump threatens to leave ObamaCare in place if GOP bill fails Senate GOP hedges on ObamaCare repeal timeline MORE (Ky.) wanted to begin 2015 fresh. Instead, a fight over immigration led Republicans late last year to fund most of the government through September while only funding the Department of Homeland Security through Feb. 27.
This ensured immigration and a battle over funding a key security agency would be the first piece of business for newly empowered Republicans.
Centrist Senate Republicans have balked at a hard-line strategy that could put funding for the Department of Homeland Security at risk — particularly given concerns about lone-wolf style terrorist attacks.
Legislation approved by the House that would overturn Obama’s 2012 executive order giving legal status to children brought to the United States as illegal immigrants is also risky for some GOP centrists, who worry it could alienate Hispanic voters.
House conservatives, however, say McConnell should pull out all the stops to get the House-backed measure passed in the upper chamber.
Obama’s unilateral decision to renew diplomatic relations with Cuba has also created Republican divisions and fueled the rivalry between Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioSenators introduce new Iran sanctions Senate intel panel has not seen Nunes surveillance documents: lawmakers With no emerging leaders, no clear message, Democrats flounder MORE (R-Fla.) and Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulPaul: Pence should oversee Senate ObamaCare repeal votes Healthcare fight pits Trump against Club for Growth GOP rep: Trump could be 'one-term president' if healthcare bill passes MORE (R-Ky.), two rising stars in the party.
Rubio has called Paul a “cheerleader” for Obama’s policy, while Paul has bashed his colleague as an “isolationist.”
Obama has also been bolstered by a growing economy, something accelerated by lower gas prices that have put more money in people’s pockets.
“It’s the first time in Obama’s presidency when he has the economic wind at his back as opposed to in his face,” said Lehane. “Nothing drives his job approval more than perception of whether the economy is going in the right direction or the wrong direction.”
Republicans have tried to claim credit for themselves on the economy.
McConnell said the uptick coincided with the biggest political change in Washington, “the expectation of a new Republican Congress.” Democrats scoffed at the claim, sending an email in response headlined:
GOP strategists argue Obama’s improvement in the polls can be attributed to him winning back disenchanted liberals through what they call his post-election lurch to the left.
“The disenchanted Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill’s Whip List: Where Dems stand on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Senators war over Wall Street during hearing for Trump's SEC pick Senators demand Pentagon action after nude photo scandal MORE side of the party has come home and started supporting the president in the way they didn’t in 2014,” said Josh Holmes, a GOP strategist and adviser to McConnell. “The large center of the electorate isn’t likely to be enthused by his extremely controversial and totally unilateral agenda.”
Republican leaders want to focus on a pragmatic agenda that tackles jobs and the economy — and one that can pick up Democratic support. If they can, they think they can take a bite out of Obama’s numbers and set themselves up for victory next year.
But the GOP effort has been sidelined by distractions.
Twenty-five Tea Party Republicans earlier this month voted to oust Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerGOP rushes to vote without knowing full impact of healthcare plan Dem senator to reintroduce ‘buy American’ legislation GOP senators offer bill to require spending cuts with debt-limit hikes MORE (R-Ohio) for not being conservative enough, and House Republican Whip Steve Scalise (La.) became a political liability after it was revealed he delivered a speech to a white supremacist group in 2002. While other Republican leaders gave press conferences at last week’s joint retreat, Scalise stayed away from the media.
Obama’s address to both chambers of Congress will attempt to highlight the differences between Democrats and Republicans.
“He’s trying to make clear what the differences in philosophy are between the two parties,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist. “He’s very clearly saying, ‘Look, I’m going to propose things I know the Republicans aren’t going to agree with, whether it’s progressive taxation, a free community college system or immigration.’ ”
Rodell Mollineau, a former senior aide to Sen. Harry ReidHarry ReidThis obscure Senate rule could let VP Mike Pence fully repeal ObamaCare once and for all Sharron Angle to challenge GOP rep in Nevada Fox's Watters asks Trump whom he would fire: Baldwin, Schumer or Zucker MORE (D-Nev.), said the drubbing Democrats took in the midterms appears to have sharpened the White House’s communications operation.
“It seems as though this White House does better after getting smacked around,” he said. “We got our clocks cleaned in the midterm election. The White House messaging has been 100 percent better since the election.”