The most striking thing about President Obama’s State of the Union address was how thoroughly and consciously it was disconnected from the political moment. The president addressed the Congress he will face for the remainder of his term, which is the most Republican Congress since 1929, but he didn’t really speak to that Congress or to the electorate that sent it. He made no mention of the recent congressional election and offered no reason to think its results would change his approach to his own job.
Instead, he began by pointing to economic gains that suggest that, six years after the end of the last recession, we may finally see the sort of growth that could merit being called a recovery. He then proceeded to propose a set of policies — giving the federal government far more power over community colleges, cutting taxes for families with two working parents but not for those with a stay-at-home parent, levying new mandates on employers — designed to draw contrasts with Republicans rather than to close distances or to be enacted. Then he painted a rosy picture of international affairs on an Earth-like planet that plainly is not this one. And finally he hearkened back to the promise of his 2004 Democratic Convention speech, which he knows everyone recalls fondly on cold nights, and said it wasn’t too late for Americans to prove ourselves worthy of that speech and its maker, if only we would behave a little less like congressional Republicans.
The substantive core of the speech, such as it was, did not involve a president laying out policy goals for the next two years. It involved a politician looking to reframe some key debates to better prepare his party for the next election cycle. What he offered is not an agenda he can work on with this Congress but an agenda that a future Democrat could plausibly attempt to offer the public — an agenda at least superficially focused on opportunity and middle-class aspirations rather than (as the Democrats’ economic case generally has been lately) inequality and middle-class resentments. That the president could offer so little policy substance to back up this superficial change of emphasis is a sign of just how bare the Democrats’ cupboard is now. But that he has recognized that the change is needed is a sign that at least some in the party may be aware of the problem they have.
In this sense, the speech offers a model that Republicans can learn from. They, too, need to recognize that there will not be very much they can achieve in the next two years, since the president isn’t particularly interested in proving that Republicans “can govern.” They should certainly look for opportunities to make meaningful rightward progress where they can, but there won’t be many of those, and for the most part they too should use what power they now have to put forward an agenda that will speak to the public’s concerns and priorities.
Their conservative principles offer them much more to work with in crafting such policies than the Democrats now have. They need not offer only superficial talk but can propose a real agenda that would speak to voter worries about economic dynamism, mobility, the cost of living, and the prospects of the next generation. And their control of Congress enables them to actually force the Democrats to vote on the most popular of their ideas. A few of those may prove popular enough to be enacted now, even under this president. Most will be filibustered or vetoed. But putting them forward, getting Republicans in the habit of articulating the case for them, and getting the public used to hearing them, could make an enormous difference in preparing their party for winning the 2016 election and governing beyond it.
— Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center