Even as he highlighted bipartisan unity and shared goals in his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama slipped in a few subtle knocks against Republicans — offering a modest boost to endangered Democratic candidates in a midterm election year.
In advance of the speech, some Democrats privately hoped the president would remind the public about the role Republicans played in shutting down the government last year over qualms with Obamacare. Obama did just that near the top of his speech, decrying the “rancorous” tone of the debate over how large the government should be and what role it should play in people's lives.
“It’s an important debate – one that dates back to our very founding,” Obama said. “But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy – when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States – then we are not doing right by the American people.”
The public blamed the 16-day government shutdown on Republicans, polling showed at the time. But any political damage the GOP sustained was quickly overshadowed by the problems that plagued the Oct. 1 rollout of Obama's health care reforms. Should Democrats hope to revive the shutdown and Republicans’ sabre-rattling on the debt ceiling as persuasive political issues, the message would likely be most effective coming from the president.
In 2014, Democrats will face a critical electoral struggle to maintain their narrow Senate majority, which has served as an important legislative firewall for Obama against the Republican-held House. The president has vowed to help vulnerable Senate Democrats hold their seats, and last week the White House announced it will bring back its office of political outreach and strategy to coordinate those efforts.
But the State of the Union was not the battlefield to launch the political fights of 2014 in earnest; rather, it is traditionally an embellished outline of policy priorities, peppered with political undertones. This year in particular, the president needed to walk a fine line between settling scores with Republicans and acknowledging the role they must play in advancing his second-term agenda, characterized by issues such as immigration and the minimum wage, in a divided government.
“The point is, there are millions of Americans outside Washington who are tired of stale political arguments, and are moving this country forward,” Obama said.
Nevertheless, on certain political flash points, which will inevitably reappear on the campaign trail this year, the president did not shy away.
On climate change, the president said, “the debate is settled.”
“Climate change is a fact,” he said.
On the minimum wage, which Democrats see as a central piece of a larger populist platform, the president announced that he would increase the minimum wage paid to the workers of federal contractors to $10.10 an hour and urged Congress to act to raise the federal limit for everyone else.
And on his signature health care law, the president conceded he might not persuade Republicans to support it. “But I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles,” he said.
“If you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, and increase choice – tell America what you’d do differently,” Obama said. “Let’s see if the numbers add up.”
“But let’s not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans,” Obama added, referring to House Republicans' serial attempts to repeal Obamacare. “The first 40 were plenty. We got it. We all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against.”
Republicans likely will not adhere to the president's suggestion. The GOP is betting on health care as a potent political issue that could help defeat vulnerable Democratic incumbents who supported the law.
Other political issues were notable in their absence from the president's speech. Gun control, which factored prominently into Obama's last State of the Union address, was scarcely mentioned.
For Obama, this State of the Union address was likely the most important he will deliver for the remainder of his presidency — and the one with the greatest potential to make a political impact in a year when control of the Senate is up for grabs. Obama will deliver his next State of the Union address as candidates are lining up for the 2016 presidential contest, and the one after when that campaign cycle is well under way, distracting from this presidency as people look to the next one.