Barack Obama offered a new political product on Tuesday night, a brand with a distinctively retro flavor -- "Democrat Classic."
Four years after his first State of the Union, Obama rolled out a series of vintage proposals from his party's amply stocked policy cupboard -- a $1.75-an-hour hike in the federal minimum wage, an ambitious plan to expand public preschool education to all kids, reintroduction of a $50 billion infrastructure plan, and resurrection of climate change legislation.
Taken as a whole, it marked the latest step in a clear effort by Obama to nudge the nation's politics to the center-left, a shift from the center-right politics of Ronald Reagan that have dominated American political life for more than three decades.
The scale of his new spending proposals was relatively modest, but the new programs targeted improving life on the lowest rungs of America's working class, delighting liberals and eliciting charges of overreach by Republicans, who are unlikely to pass much of what Obama laid on the table Tuesday night.
"It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country -- the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love," he said as he began a speech that lived up to its billing as a bookend to his progressive inaugural address three weeks ago.
"It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation of ours," he added.
Obama called for bipartisanship, but drew limits at how far he was willing to go to cut deals, a marked contrast from his first term, when he sought with little success to reach a grand bargain on the budget and deficits with GOP leaders.
Over and again in the hourlong speech, Obama cast himself as champion of the working classes and portrayed Republicans as protectors of the wealthy and powerful -- in a speech that began with a John F. Kennedy quote and could have been comfortably delivered by JFK, FDR or LBJ.
Obama's more immediate aim was to back Republicans into a corner on the upcoming fight over $1.2 trillion in budget cuts triggered on March 1 by the sequester by harnessing public opinion for his own approach -- through fewer budget cuts than Republicans want, a more modest approach to reforming runway entitlement programs and a greater emphasis on raising new tax revenues from corporations and the wealthy.
He made that case in blunt, confrontational language aimed at Republican leaders -- who have responded by accusing him of stifling economic growth and pushing the country to the far left.
"We can't ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful," Obama said. "We won't grow the middle class simply by shifting the cost of health care or college onto families that are already struggling, or by forcing communities to lay off more teachers, cops, and firefighters. Most Americans -- Democrats, Republicans, and Independents -- understand that we can't just cut our way to prosperity."
Democrats roared in approval. Republicans pursed their lips and folded their arms.
The Republicans' appointed counter-messenger for the night, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, was equally intent on aiming his pitch -- for lower taxes and government spending -- at the same working class voters Obama wooed successfully in 2012.
"Presidents in both parties -- from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan -- have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity. But President Obama? He believes it's the cause of our problems," said Rubio, a potential 2016 candidate whose political chops have prompted comparisons to Obama.
"Mr. President, I still live in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in. My neighbors aren't millionaires. They're retirees who depend on Social Security and Medicare," he added. "They're workers who have to get up early tomorrow morning and go to work to pay the bills. They're immigrants, who came here because they were stuck in poverty in countries where the government dominated the economy. The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle-class families. It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs."
At times, the blue-collar rhetoric employed by Obama and Rubio tracked so closely they co-mingled, like alternating verses in a Bruce Springsteen song.
"[H]ow do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?" Obama asked.
"I don't oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors," Rubio said.
After brokering a deal with Republicans that raised taxes on families making more than $400,000 per year, Obama is going to the same well again, pushing the GOP to accept new revenue, much of it realized through the elimination of corporate loopholes. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) both say they are done with tax increases -- and are demanding Obama give them a detailed list of budget cuts and entitlement reforms.
In the briefing materials provided to reporters ahead of the speech, the nation's fiscal mess was reduced to three paragraphs on the eighth and final page. While Obama vowed to "cut the deficit in a balanced way," he also warned again "we can't cut our way to prosperity" -- a pointed challenge that sets in motion yet another high-stakes confrontation between the parties.
He reiterated his offer to the GOP, made during recent debt talks: $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, $600 billion in new revenues and $900 billion in entitlement and budget cuts, a proposal that has already been rejected out of hand by McConnell and Boehner.
Even before he spoke, Obama has already signaled a bolder, more assertive approach on core Democratic issues, unveiling a series of specific new gun control and immigration reform efforts, no-expiration-date items on his party's perpetual to-do list that have been thrust to prominence by recent events.
Congress is more likely than not to take action on those items than Obama's new policy proposals, with bipartisan groups currently working on a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The Senate is also likely to take up limited gun regulations. most likely a measure requiring universal national background checks on all firearm purchases.
Yet even here Obama threw down a gauntlet, demanding an up-or-down vote on more stringent measures like a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
"Gabby Giffords deserves a vote," he said. "The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence -- they deserve a simple vote."
By laying down all these markers, Obama hopes to coerce Congress into bipartisan deals that bipartisan backroom negotiations haven't yet yielded.
But Republicans, and even a few Democrats, called on Obama to offer more olive branches across the aisle, even if many in the GOP seem set to oppose nearly everything he's proposed.
"It ... gave me hope to hear the President's call for a 'big deal' to find a long-term solution to our fiscal issues rather than continuing to take short-term piecemeal approaches to addressing our nation's fiscal and economic issues," said Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.), at 29 the youngest member of Congress.
"However, to come to a grand bargain, we need to find common ground to work together, regardless of party affiliation. I would like to have heard President Obama speak even more about his commitment to bipartisanship," he added.
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