Obama’s 99 percent speech

There was plenty of mush in his State of the Union, but also an unmistakably combative and populist tone

Topics: Opening Shot,

Obama's 99 percent speechU.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address. (Credit: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Before Tuesday night, it had been 16 years since a Democratic president gave a State of the Union address in his reelection year.

And in some ways, the speech that Barack Obama delivered was very similar to the one that Bill Clinton offered back in 1996. But if you put aside all of the platitudes, mushy rhetoric and feel-good proposals, the heart of Obama’s remarks demonstrated that he’s intent on pursuing a far more combative and populist path to a second term than the one Clinton followed.

It was during his Jan. 23, 1996, State of the Union that Clinton uttered the signature line of his presidency. “The era of big government is over,” he told a joint session of Congress that night. The line captured the essence of an election year message that largely conceded the broad themes of the Reagan revolution while offering the incumbent as a more compassionate implementer of them than his Republican opponents.

Obama’s address included no shortage of appeals to unity, bipartisanship and overriding national purpose, and he articulated plenty of vague, popular-sounding policy goals, much as Clinton did during his ’96 campaign. But his central message stressed a sharp and basic philosophical contrast with his partisan opponents – one he clearly plans to make the centerpiece of his reelection effort.

Specifically, the fight Obama wants to have is over income inequality and tax fairness, with the aim of exposing today’s Republican Party as the chief protector of a super-affluent elite that has grown even wealthier as the rest of America has struggled. For decades, Republicans have scored points accusing Democrats of “class warfare,” but the White House’s bet is that in post-meltdown America the “99 percent” message has resonance with blue-collar voters who have in the past embraced the GOP’s individualist pitch.

In his speech, Obama offered a forceful and comprehensive rebuttal to the class warfare charge, one we’ll surely be hearing again and again these next nine months. He made a case for letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire and for imposing the “Buffett rule” – doing away with tax rules that allow millionaires who make their money from investments to pay an income tax rate that’s lower than the one paid by people who earn a fraction of their income. He made the case in moral terms, as a way to affirm a social contract that’s been violated by the policy-making of the past three decades:

Now, you can call this class warfare all you want.  But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes?  Most Americans would call that common sense.

When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich.  It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference – like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet.  That’s not right.  Americans know it’s not right.  They know that this generation’s success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to their country’s future, and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility.  That’s how we’ll reduce our deficit.  That’s an America built to last.

You Might Also Like

Obviously, this is a message that could be particularly effective if Obama’s opponent is Mitt Romney, the private equity veteran whose tax records indicate that he paid a 14 percent effective federal rate thanks to the current rules on investment income. But it’s one Obama will stress no matter who his opponent is. After all, Newt Gingrich, Romney’s chief rival for the GOP nomination, is actually proposing that the capital gains tax be eliminated altogether – a move that would drop the effective tax rate of Romney and others like him close to zero.

“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by,” Obama said early in his speech, “or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

He’s embracing the idea that there is fundamental philosophical divide between the parties on the most important economic questions facing the country. That’s a very different message than the one he delivered in his State of the Union last year, when he was coming off a midterm election drubbing and he believed that his best bet for reelection was in following the Clinton ’96 model.

But a massively frustrating spring and summer of 2011, which culminated in the GOP’s rejection of his debt ceiling “grand bargain” and a public relations disaster, finally convinced the White House that meaningful compromise with Tea Party-era Republicans simply isn’t possible – and that pretending otherwise was politically suicidal. Since then, Obama has made it his mission to call out Republicans for their obstructionism and to shine a light on who is protected by their obstructionism. His State of the Union on Tuesday night laid the groundwork for a reelection campaign that will be defined by that theme.

Steve Kornacki
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>