President Obama talked about spending a lot of money tonight -- on preschool care, community college, new infrastructure, and a variety of tax preferences for middle- and lower-income earners. All financed by new taxes, primarily on the wealthy.
Put simply, in the face of the most Republican Congress since the 1920s, President Obama has offered a defiantly liberal agenda. It has precisely zero chance of passage.
I happen to think there is a fair bit of common ground to be found between the two parties. Corporate tax reform and corporate welfare reduction come immediately to mind. On both these issues, congressional Republicans and the president could cut back government subsidies for the wealthy and well-connected. In my new book I call this, pursuing Jeffersonian ends (greater equality) with Jeffersonian means (less government).
I’d add to this list, trade and immigration. In theory, common ground can be found.
But little of that is going to happen because President Obama insists on trolling Republicans. Byron York put it best yesterday:
With no real political clout on Capitol Hill and a job approval rating that has stayed mostly below 50 percent for a long time, Obama is trying to leverage the power he has left to force his agenda on the Republican majority. His big talk, executive actions, and outlandish proposals are the best ways he has to control the debate in Washington.
"The reason he is being aggressive is that he knows he can generate a response," says a well-connected Republican strategist. "When he does an executive order, what he is trying to do is generate a response so that the entire conversation is about what he did — so that he has defined the agenda."
And this is what we saw with tonight’s speech. Rather than acknowledge the new Republican majorities, and try to find common ground, the president insisted on policies he knows the GOP will never accept. Tax, spend, regulate, then repeat -- as if this is 2009 and Nancy Pelosi, not John Boehner, is sitting behind him.
Why? I think it’s because this president’s number one priority is always to appear unbowed. He must imitate Jake LaMotta taunting Sugar Ray Robinson at the end of Raging Bull: “You never knocked me down, Ray!”
If Obama were to respond to the midterms as Bill Clinton did -- defending liberal values while working on problems with Republicans where the two sides basically agree -- he’d appear to be capitulating. By insisting on ever more government, he’s LaMotta: you never knocked me down, Boehner!
So, we get two more years of no action -- even on issues where there could be agreement -- because God forbid this president appear to lose.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for the Weekly Standard. He is the author of A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption, to be published by Encounter Books on February 10.