In State of the Union, Obama will frame 2014 Dem arguments on economic fairness and more

By Josh Lederman

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 27 2014 2:00 p.m. MST

In this Oct. 15, 2013, file photo, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., center, walks away after answering questions from reporters with Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama can only do so much to help his party in this year's midterm elections. Six years in office have taken a toll on his popularity, and aside from raising money, his value on the campaign trail is limited — especially in the states that worry Democrats the most.

But the president can set the tone. In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama will frame an economic argument his party hopes will help carry them to victory in November. Although not explicitly political, the speech gives Obama an opportunity to issue a rallying cry for economic fairness and expanded opportunity — issues Democrats believe will resonate in races across the country.

"It will be interpreted as the Democratic agenda," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. "He can frame up the 2014 choice."

That choice, as Obama portrays it, is between an America where all segments of the population have opportunities to improve their lot and one where prosperity is disproportionately enjoyed by a select few. In the run-up to the State of the Union, Obama has persistently sought to focus the nation's attention on trends of inequality and lower social mobility that he's pledging to address in his final years in office.

To be sure, not every Democrat will echo Obama's themes in their own campaigns. Many may focus on niche, regional issues or their personal characteristics. But with the economy still a top issue for most voters, Democrats see issues of economic fairness and expanding access to the middle class as their best chance to reach a broad swath of the population that feels left behind by the sluggish economic recovery.

"Middle-class security is the defining issue of our time," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Democrats' campaign arm. "Our candidates are going to talk about what priority makes more sense for the middle class: Increasing the minimum wage, or decreasing taxes for the wealthiest? Those contrasts are imperative and revealing."

When Obama invited Senate Democrats to a meeting at the White House this month, much of the session focused on how Democrats wanted Obama to focus on the notion of expanding economic opportunity in his State of the Union, said a White House official, who wasn't authorized to discuss a private meeting by name and requested anonymity. Obama's legislative affairs director, Katie Beirne Fallon, and his senior adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, consulted closely with Democratic leadership in the House and Senate as they planned the speech and this year's legislative agenda, the official said.

Republicans also have taken notice of the public's interest. In recent weeks, lawmakers such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have publicly floated their own ideas about reducing poverty in the U.S.

For Democrats, Obama's message may fall short of the argument they'd hoped to be able to make in their sixth year in the White House, when the president's party historically takes an electoral drubbing.

But Obama's signature legislative feat, his health care law, remains unpopular across the country. Unemployment's still high. And with Congress bitterly divided and gridlocked, there are few other major achievements either party can point to as they ask voters to give them their support.

The idea is to rally Democrats behind an uplifting theme with broad appeal across geographic, demographic and partisan boundaries. In an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last month, 68 percent said they'd like the federal government expend a moderate or great amount of effort reducing the gap between rich and poor. By comparison, less than half wanted the government to focus on advancing gay rights or fighting climate change.

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