The right's agenda is reviled: The lesson from Obama's confident State of the Union

Intentional or not, the president's speech was a reminder to Democrats that their goals are the ones Americans back

Published January 29, 2014 12:45PM (EST)

Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz                    (Jeffrey Malet,
Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz (Jeffrey Malet,

Over the past four months, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and its impact on President Obama's approval rating have overtaken most of the common arguments about 2014 politics. And as shallow as that analysis seems to people who take a longer view of the law's prospects, I get it. The last three months of 2013 were genuinely tough going, and there's just no denying that if Obama's public standing doesn't improve, Democrats will be in for a very rough cycle.

I don't know if that means Obama should've dwelled on the healthcare law more than he did in his State of the Union address or not. You could argue it either way. He mocked the GOP's now-faltering repeal obsession and encouraged people to help their friends and family members enroll. But it was just one small piece of a speech about a lot of different issues.

Some of these were small-bore issues and others were fanciful, given how logjammed American politics is today. But when it was over, what actually struck me was how many of them were enduring, feasible liberal goals.

Intentionally or otherwise, Obama's speech was a reminder to Democrats that the storm clouds of Obamacare implementation have obscured their view of the popular platform the party ran on so confidently in 2012. That there are a series of issues that animate Democratic constituencies on the docket, both ahead of 2014 and beyond, and all of them are political and substantive winners for the party.

Here are some of the big ones, from Obama's prepared remarks:

  • Federally-funded research helped lead to the ideas and inventions behind Google and smartphones. That’s why Congress should undo the damage done by last year’s cuts to basic research so we can unleash the next great American discovery.
  • If we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement – and fix our broken immigration system. Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted. I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same.
  • [T]his Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people.
  • Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work. She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship – and you know what, a father does, too. It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode.
  • In the year since I asked this Congress to raise the minimum wage, five states have passed laws to raise theirs. Many businesses have done it on their own…. To every mayor, governor, and state legislator in America, I say, you don’t have to wait for Congress to act; Americans will support you if you take this on…. Of course, to reach millions more, Congress needs to get on board. Today, the federal minimum wage is worth about twenty percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan first stood here. Tom Harkin and George Miller have a bill to fix that by lifting the minimum wage to $10.10. This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It doesn’t involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country.
  • Citizenship means standing up for everyone’s right to vote. Last year, part of the Voting Rights Act was weakened. But conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are working together to strengthen it; and the bipartisan commission I appointed last year has offered reforms so that no one has to wait more than a half hour to vote. Let’s support these efforts. It should be the power of our vote, not the size of our bank account, that drives our democracy.

Here's my question: If Obama and Joe Biden had abruptly resigned last year (humiliated by the launch, no doubt) could President John Boehner have strung together a similar list of straightforward but substantive Republican proposals that would improve so many people's lives? I don't think he could have.

To the extent that the GOP agenda isn't in flux or concealed by sensitivity training, it remains broadly less popular than the Democratic agenda. Republicans understand this well enough to recognize that they need to at least pretend to want to narrow inequality, but these ideas don't layer neatly atop the existing party platform.

"[The earned income tax credit] helps about half of all parents at some point," Obama said. "But I agree with Republicans like Senator Rubio that it doesn’t do enough for single workers who don’t have kids. So let’s work together to strengthen the credit, reward work, and help more Americans get ahead." The problem is that Republicans want to do this without expanding the earned income tax credit, which means money for childless adults would come out of the pockets of parents, who benefit from the program in its current form.

And, of course, in the long run, fanatical opposition to national healthcare isn't easily compatible with any serious equality agenda. Democrats don't have that problem. And structurally that puts them in a sound place, even if the politics of the moment feel pretty wobbly.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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