President Obama in his SOTU address has proposed a number of worthwhile initiatives that he knows have no chance of passage.   Many Republicans were outraged. Doesn’t he know that he lost the last (midterm) elections? How dare he propose tax increases on the rich? After all, a practical politician who wants to get things done needs to acknowledge defeat with the appropriate humility. Instead of an in-your-face agenda Obama should have come to the Republicans with multiple olive branches extended.

I’m unimpressed by Republicans’ outrage. It is nonsense to claim that Americans repudiated Obama and the kind of moderately activist government his SOTU envisions. Thirty-six per cent of eligible voters participated in the November elections—the lowest turnout in 70 years.   It thus took less than 20% of American adults to put the Republicans in control of Congress. That’s not a repudiation of Obama any more than it’s a mandate for Republican reaction. It reflects the discontent of a diminished electorate that expressed its general unhappiness by voting against the incumbent president.

But what point is there anyway in putting forth proposals that are sure to be rejected? Isn’t that just divisive? Doesn’t it belie the President’s calls later in his address for Washington to rise above politics and come together in the search for the common good?

The president’s new-found audacity is arguably divisive in that it highlights the differences that separate his moderate progressive agenda and outlook from that of the radical pseudo-conservative opposition. That is a good thing, and it’s about time.  Obama’s stubborn search for common ground with Republicans has been largely fruitless. Congressional Republicans have been implacably determined to destroy this president politically. The prospects for achieving anything significant in the way of progressive legislation have been practically nil since the 2010 elections.  All Obama can do is exercise his limited executive powers for progressive ends and use his bully pulpit to try to shape the country’s discourse for the remainder of his term and beyond—to lay out a clear and consistent alternative to the Republicans’ reactionary vision.

I hope that the Washington Post‘s EJ Dione is right:

President Obama made clear that he thinks it’s far more important to win a long-term argument with his partisan and ideological opponents than to pretend that they are eager to seize opportunities to work with him.

But Obama’s provocations do seem a mite inconsistent with his renewed call for Democrats and Republicans to search out areas of agreement.   At least since his spectacular national debut at the Democratic 2004 convention, Obama has been partial to post-partisan “We’re all Americans” rhetoric which tries to play down the divisions among us. Here he goes again. But the divisions are real, and deep.  They can’t be wished away.

It’s not that Obama’s program is in any way radical: There’s nothing radical about returning the top capital gains rate to the 28% level it was at under Reagan, or closing a huge loophole in the taxation of inherited wealth.   The problem—and of course regular readers will note that I’m repeating myself—is that Obama’s Republican opponents are radical. There just isn’t much common ground between a policy philosophy that assigns to government significant responsibility for mitigating the ills of capitalism and a philosophy and practice that aims instead to largely cripple government’s capacity for action against those ills.

There is just one significant issue area in which Obama can expect to achieve substantial agreement with his Republican opponents:  the regulation of international investment and trade.  More commonly known as “free trade,” it is an issue area that divides Obama more from his fellow Democrats than from the Republicans. More about that in a future post.


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