Exactly six years after President Obama took office in the depths of the recession, the economy has finally improved enough for the president to brag about it Tuesday night in his annual State of the Union address.
Previewing his speech for audiences over the past two weeks, Mr. Obama has recited the positive economic statistics so often that he undoubtedly can do it in his sleep: 11 million private-sector jobs created over 58 straight months, the longest stretch of job growth in U.S. history. Unemployment fell faster in 2014 than it had for 30 years, and now stands at 5.6 percent, the lowest jobless level since June 2008.
It’s the kind of economic performance that Mr. Obama has been promising since his first day in office on Jan. 20, 2009. But each year since then, a sluggish recovery had the president acknowledging that there was “more work to do.”
Now, from the resurgent auto industry (a bailout begun under President George W. Bush and expanded by Mr. Obama) to falling gas prices (largely determined by global supply and demand), Mr. Obama is taking full credit, after presiding over a weak economic recovery for nearly three-fourths of his presidency.
“There is good news — the economy is finally coming back, and that’s exactly what he’s trumpeting,” said Charles Lipson, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “It’s the one area where he can claim plausibly bipartisan agreement, with both sides of the aisle clapping.”
Troubling fiscal trends remain, including a soaring national debt and stagnant wages. But senior administration officials say Mr. Obama intends to use the improving economy as leverage to call on Congress to approve a wide range of new federal programs that would cost more than $230 billion, from universal government-paid tuition for community-college students to expanded tax breaks for the middle class.
To pay for those initiatives, the president wants to raise taxes on wealthier families by about $320 billion over 10 years, by raising the top rate on capital gains taxes to 28 percent and eliminating a tax loophole for trust funds. Mr. Obama also will propose charging a new fee on big banks.
Congressional Republicans say Mr. Obama’s tax-hike plan is dead on arrival, a development that will come as no surprise to the president and his advisers, who’ve been watching the GOP reject tax increases for years. But analysts say Mr. Obama is setting the stage to issue more executive actions over the next two years in areas where Congress won’t act, and also pounding on themes that he hopes will put the GOP on the defensive heading into the 2016 presidential election.
“It’s not just about what gets passed this year, it’s about who we elect in 2016,” said Robert Lehrman, a professor of communications at American University who was chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. “Obama may make a big pitch for free community-college tuition, and even if it doesn’t pass, he’s thinking Hillary [former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton] can run against the Republicans on that. Even though they [White House officials] will say they want to work in a bipartisan way, they know the prospects are minimal.”
With Republicans now in control of the Senate and holding a larger majority in the House, some observers believe it will free up Mr. Obama to confront the GOP more often.
“He’s got nothing to lose,” said Richard Kelsey, assistant dean at the George Mason University law school. “He doesn’t have to pretend to cooperate with [former Senate majority leader] Harry Reid.”
Since Democrats lost resoundingly in the midterm elections in November, Mr. Obama has been taking high-profile executive actions. He granted deportation amnesty in November to as many as five million illegal immigrants, and last month Mr. Obama announced that he would normalize U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years.
“He’s come out swinging,” Mr. Kelsey said. “The Republicans clobbered him, and the first thing he did was hand them a live hand grenade [deportation amnesty] with the pin pulled, and said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ And he found out they weren’t going to do anything about it, or they couldn’t figure out what to do about it. He did a great job from a political standpoint. He turned around, took those election results and stuffed them right back at the Republicans.”
Another reason that Mr. Obama is likely to focus on the improving economy is because his foreign policy is in trouble on several fronts. Denuclearization talks with Iran are making little progress, the threat of terrorist attacks spawned in Syria and elsewhere is multiplying, a trade deal with Pacific rim nations is still incomplete and Russia is still agitating in Ukraine.
“On Islamic terrorism, the utter failure of his policies in Syria, the total failure of the Russian re-set and greater danger there in the region, and what looks to be a very weak negotiating posture with Iran that is already getting pushback from Congress, I think that he would like to keep the focus on his strong points and not his numerous weak points,” Mr. Lipson said. “But with the events in Paris and in Brussels, he simply can’t avoid talking about the larger problems.”
The terrorist attacks two weeks ago in Paris and another plot thwarted by authorities in Belgium renewed concerns about the possibility of attacks in the U.S., and raised criticism that Mr. Obama and his advisers are deliberately downplaying the role of Islamist extremism in such violence.
“I would be shocked if he uses the words ‘Islamic terrorism,’ or ‘jihadi’ in his speech,” Mr. Lipson said. “He never speaks about that. By failing to call this extremist Islamic-inspired violence done in the name of Islam for what it is, I think he simply cannot think clearly about it. And I don’t think it’s any of the president’s business to act as theologians and tell us what religions say. It’s not just that he’s not an expert on it, it’s that it’s not the proper role of the president of the United States. We want him to be dealing with the policy problems that are overwhelming him and that the public is increasingly agitated about and lacking in confidence that he and his White House can cope with.”
Immediately after his address, Mr. Obama will head out on the road to sell his proposals in familiar territory — college campuses. On Wednesday, the president will travel to Boise, Idaho, to speak to students at Boise State University. On Thursday, he’ll speak to students at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
By that time, Mr. Obama will probably be enjoying a slight “bounce” in the polls that presidents usually experience after the State of the Union address.
“Every president gets a little uptick from the speech itself,” said Mr. Lehrman, who saw the challenge from the other side of the partisan divide when he wrote the Democratic minority response to President George H.W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 1989. He said the opposition party’s speaker — this year it will be freshman Republican Sen. Joni Earnst of Iowa — is always at a disadvantage.
“It was a great lesson for me — a nine-minute speech with one person sitting in the room,” Mr. Lehrman said. “I saw how ineffective it is. How do you compete with the president? There’s no way you can.”