Brian Beutler contends that Obama is “priming the public for [Clinton’s] campaign” by “building a case before the public that Democrats have had better economic ideas all along”:
Tuesday’s State of the Union was thus a single component of a project that’s much more meaningful than budget brinksmanship or the 2016 campaign—to establish the parameters of the economic debate for years and years, the way Ronald Reagan’s presidency lent supply-side tax policy and deregulation a presumption of efficacy that shaped not just Republican, but Democratic policy for two decades.
Seven years into Obama’s presidency, the U.S. economy is finally growing rapidly enough to boost his popularity and to sell the country on the idea that Obama’s peculiar brand of ostentatious incrementalism—building out and improving existing institutions, directing resources through them to the middle class—has worked, and should serve as a beacon not just for liberals, but for conservatives aspiring to recapture the presidency.
Chait calls the speech “the first expression of Democratic politics in the post-recession era”:
Republicans have formulated plans to benefit working-class Americans directly, but all these plans have foundered on the problem that Republicans have no way to pay for them:
they may be willing to cut taxes for the working poor, if that’s what it takes to win an election these days, but they certainly don’t want to raise taxes on the affluent. (“Raising taxes on people that are successful is not going to make people that are struggling more successful, insisted Marco Rubio recently.”) This means the money to finance the new Republican populist offensive must be conjured out of thin air.
Thus the blunt quality of Obama’s plan: he will cut taxes for the working- and middle-class by raising an equal amount from wealthy heirs and investors. Obama’s plan is not going to pass Congress, of course. Probably nothing serious can pass a Congress that still has no political or ideological incentive to cooperate with the president. The point is not to pass a law. It is to lay out openly the actual trade-offs involved.
John Fund, on the other hand, thinks Obama glossed over the trade-offs of his proposals:
All of the proposals enjoy majority support in polls — although that support tends to fall after people weigh the price tag.
Take paid sick leave. Obama mentioned that wherever the issue was on the ballot this fall it passed when people voted on it. But he was careful not to mention that the only state where it was on the ballot was Massachusetts. Yes, the state that hasn’t sent a single Republican to the U.S. House in 20 years and consistently votes Democratic for president by about ten points more than the rest of the country. Question 4, the Massachusetts ballot measure that mandated paid sick leave in the state, did pass but with only 60 percent of the vote — meaning that after a real debate the issue might be an even split nationwide.
Jonah Goldberg was also unimpressed by the address:
Like a lot of people, I found tonight’s speech a chore. That’s less of a criticism of Obama than it sounds. I find all State of the Unions to be tedious, particularly this late in a presidency. I do think it was better delivered than most of his State of the Union addresses. I didn’t, however, think it was particularly well-written. “The shadow of crisis has passed”? C minus.
Annie Lowrey watched a different speech:
[T]onight, we saw an Obama like the one we saw on the campaign trail – fired up, optimistic, discursive, happy-hearted, and historical. Tonight, we saw an Obama who decried Washington, but still seemed convinced in hope and change. Tonight, we saw Obama thunder, trumpet, and staccato-shout his policies, despite the nonexistent odds they have of passage. And the fact that the economy has turned around so much seemed to give him hope that the middle class would start feeling better, even if Washington never helps.
Jim Tankersley argues that some of Obama’s proposals have real promise:
Many economists say the preferential treatment for capital income has led to the excessive growth of Wall Street, which has robbed the broader economy of precious brainpower that would be better employed solving human problems and creating more high-paying jobs. This could eventually prove to be the key difference in Obama’s latest middle-class plan, compared to his past plans – a difference in policy and in politics. If you talk to American workers much, you find that, sure, they’d enjoy paying less money to the government. But mostly, they’d like a better-paying job.
Chris Cillizza was struck by Obama’s confidence:
For his allies and even many liberals who had grown sour on him, it was a triumphant speech in which both his own soaring confidence and his dismissal of his political rivals was fitting and appropriate. For his detractors, the speech was everything they loathe about him: cocky, combative and forever campaigning. Regardless of where you land on that confident-to-cocky spectrum, one thing was very clear tonight: Obama isn’t planning to go quietly over his final two years in office. Not quietly at all.
However, David Corn admits that “State of the Union speeches aren’t what they used to be”:
Once upon a time, a large chunk of Americans watched the chief executive unveil his plans in these ornate circumstances. After all, there was little else to see on television for that hour or so. But in our Internet-y days, there are no more captive audiences. So the reach of any State of the Union speech is limited. Yet this address did provide Obama with what is likely to be his biggest audience of the year (unless there is an emergency, a grand history-making event, or national tragedy). And he used the opportunity to effectively restate and reinforce his foundational views. Toward the end of the speech, Obama noted, “I have no more campaigns to run. My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I’ve had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol.” And that seemed to be true. He yielded no ground to the ascendant Republicans, though he did again sidestep the depth of the opposition he has faced—and that he and his agenda will continue to face. This State of the Union address was no game-changer, but it was a signal from Obama that he will be sticking to his game.
Last but not least, Josh Marshall suspects Obama is playing a long game:
As Sahil Kapur explains, based on conversations with White House aides, President Obama wanted to be a Ronald Reagan of the Center-Left in tonight’s speech, not so much focused on passing laws in the next two years (which isn’t happening regardless) as embedding a clear blueprint of progressive activism into the structure and rhetoric of American politics for years or decades to come. So he’ll make his arguments, cheer successes and vindicated predictions and promises, take aggressive executive actions to the limits of his authority. But more than anything else he’ll try to push the whole package, the logic of his administration and his policies as a touch point and reference for the future.
He was talking over and past the new GOP majorities on many, many levels.