President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday didn't contain any surprises, but it did unveil the clearest picture yet of the strategy Obama has adopted for the final two years of his presidency.
He's going to keep talking about bipartisanship — but in practice, he plans to confront his Republican adversaries with a relentless barrage of Democratic proposals, many of them poll-tested.
"I still believe that together, we can do great things," Obama said in his soaring peroration. "I have no more campaigns to run…. I still think the cynics are wrong."
But he offered Republicans few clearly marked places to find common ground in an expansive wish list that included tax increases on the wealthy, an increase in the minimum wage, more federal spending on child care and stepped-up action to halt climate change.
And that was the statesmanlike, presidential version.
Obama's aides have been far more blunt as they rolled out the president's proposals over the last few days.
"Do [Republicans] think … we should be ensuring that millionaires and billionaires are getting special, preferential tax benefits … [or] that more middle-class families should have the opportunity to go to college?" White House spokesman Josh Earnest asked on CNN. "That's really the question."
Obama and his lieutenants haven't always been so pugnacious.
When he entered the White House in 2009, Obama preached a gauzy gospel of post-partisan cooperation. He spent months asking Republicans to join him in drafting an economic stimulus plan and a complex healthcare law, and made several tries at negotiating a "grand bargain" on fiscal policy, in 2011 and again in 2013. But Republicans weren't playing.
Now, after the 2014 election placed both houses of Congress under GOP control, Obama appears to have concluded that his chances of success as a deal maker have all but evaporated.
Instead of offering much that might lend itself to bipartisan negotiations, he's staking out unashamedly partisan positions — most notably on taxes, where he proposed raising capital gains rates on the top 1% of earners to pay for benefits for the middle class.
"I'm not going to spend the next two years on defense; I'm going to play offense," he told Democratic senators last week, according to Politico.
That hard-nosed approach has already produced a political benefit for the president. Instead of being dismissed as a powerless lame duck, he's been criticized as a power-mad autocrat — which, as Machiavelli was among the first to note, is far preferable.
Amid the president's policy whirlwind, the new Republican majority in Congress hasn't managed to seize control of the agenda. Instead, it's been forced to respond to Obama.
He ordered major changes in immigration policy, dared Congress to overturn them and announced that he'd veto the bill if they did — one of four vetoes he threatened in Tuesday's speech.
He unilaterally relaxed regulations that enforce the U.S. trade and travel embargo with Cuba.
And he promised to finalize controversial regulations to slash emissions from coal-fired power plants, the nation's largest source of climate-changing greenhouse gases.
Obama's ratings in the polls haven't suffered as a result; instead, they've ticked up (although that's also a product of good economic news).
And has all that autocratic unilateralism poisoned the well for eventual negotiations with Congress?
Not according to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
"He's not for much of anything the American people voted for last November," the pragmatic Senate majority leader complained Tuesday, before Obama spoke. "Hopefully that's just rhetoric … and we'll still look for things that we can actually agree on."
But even optimists on Capitol Hill are confining their bipartisan ambitions to secondary issues: a cybersecurity bill, authority for Obama to conclude trade agreements and, maybe, if things go unexpectedly well, a new corporate tax law.
That's only realistic, and not unusual. Ronald Reagan's biggest domestic achievement in his last two years, wrestling with a Democratic Congress, was a now-forgotten transportation bill. Bill Clinton's final two years, with a GOP Congress less radical than today's, was even less productive.
Despite Obama's bravado, much of what he will be doing in the next two years is actually defensive: fending off Republican assaults on his healthcare law, his immigration orders, the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and his coal emission regulations.
If he can navigate the rest of his term with those pieces of his legacy intact, when he leaves the White House, he'll be able to say that he accomplished most of what he set out to do.
Meanwhile, though, he has made his strategy clear: The best defense really is a good offense.
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