Obama’s “Better Politics” Is a Rebranded Version of the Same Old Partisanship

There’s a lot to unpack from last night’s State of the Union, but the thing that struck me the most was the curious dissonance between the president’s hopeful tone and the cynicism inherent in his ideas.

Early in the speech he promised to send Congress “a budget filled with ideas that are practical, not partisan.” And towards the end of his speech he gave a reheated version of the same spiel we’ve heard since his 2004 talk at the Democratic National Convention – his desire to fight politics as usual in Washington.

“There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you told me that this isn’t what you signed up for – arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision,” the president said. “Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.”

He later went on to encourage the party’s to “appeal to each other’s basic decency” and “debate without demonizing” and “talk issues and values.”

It was good stuff. It always is. But it’s a message that you can sell for one year, maybe two, without actually pursuing the change you talk about. President Obama is now beginning his sixth year and thus far each one has been marked by increasing levels of discord, owing in no small part to the White House’s seeming love of political gamesmanship.

If the State of the Union is any indication, this year looks no different. Part of the problem is the president’s clear unwillingness to discuss issues of bipartisan importance. The speech was filled with promises to veto legislation attempting to fix parts of Obamacare, reduce burdens on small businesses, repair our broken immigration system, or react to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“I don’t remember a State of the Union address where I heard a president issue so many veto threats . . .  to the opposite party in the United States’ Congress,” CNN host Wolf Blitzer said after the speech.

But that should be expected from a president who has lost control of the legislature and whose political stature is directly correlated to the level of ink in his veto pen. More concerning was President Obama’s willingness to use the venerable State of the Union as a glorified campaign platform.

The proposals he discussed were so separated from both political reality and any sense of good policy that they seemed to be little more than an attempt to set the table for 2016. For instance, why on earth would you advocate increasing the tax rate on capital gains in the same speech in which you argue that Americans aren’t saving enough money? And what is the rationale for imposing a liabilities tax on one industry when there are plenty of others susceptible to risk taking? And how does it help anyone to make college “free” when it’s already free for low-income families and the plan to pay for it requires destroying 599 plans, which are used for the middle class to pay for college?

The simple answer to all of those questions seems to be that they poll well. Stocks are associated with rich people, and nobody likes them. Excessive risk taking is associated with financial firms, and nobody likes them. And everyone likes free stuff, especially when it’s tied to a seemingly unrelated pay-for.

The goal then is not, as President Obama suggested, to “turn the page,” or promote a vision of “better politics” so much as it is to woo voters who abandoned his party in 2014. As James Oliphant wrote for the National Journal:

The biggest challenge Obama faces in the aftermath of the hour-long speech lies not in enacting the bulk of policy proposals he outlined; the White House already knows that isn’t likely to happen with this Congress. It’s convincing those middle-class and blue-collar voters who have been most resistant to joining his electoral coalition that this president has their best interests at heart—and that he’s not taking advantage of the economic recovery, the end of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and his own modest rebound in popularity to push unabashedly liberal priorities in his final two years in office.

President Obama’s stated goal may have been to help the middle class, but if you read between the lines the real constituency he was serving was Democratic candidates for office. That’s politics as usual for this administration. And that’s the problem.