In his seventh State of the Union on Tuesday night, President Barack Obama touted the low unemployment rate, low gas prices, increase in clean energy production, lower teen pregnancy rates and host of other statistics that supported his optimistic vision. “The shadow of crisis has passed,” he said. “And the state of the union is strong.”
Giving the official Tea Party response to Obama's address, Representative Curt Clawson painted a very different picture of the state of America. “In 2014, our economy continued sluggish growth and millions of Americans are still out of work," he said. "We know them. We see them." This message was echoed in every other Republican response to Obama’s speech—five in all.
These dual visions of America have been competing since the midterms, when Republicans trounced Democrats in races across the country. But every day, since then it’s become increasingly clear that Obama’s message is a much more accurate depiction of the United States than what Republicans are offering—and the GOP message will likely look more ridiculous as the 2016 presidential election approaches.
Take the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have been arguing for years that Obamacare would cripple the health care system and destroy the economy. Clawson repeated those claims in his response. “We also need to lift the economic shackles of Obamacare," he said. "It makes us uncompetitive.” These are ridiculous arguments. The odds that Obamacare would cause a death spiral in the insurance industry, for instance, were always exaggerated. But the topline metrics now show that Obamacare is working. Millions more people now have insurance. Health care cost growth has slowed, although it’s unclear how much of that is due to the health care law. Insurers aren’t fleeing the exchanges and premiums aren’t skyrocketing. All of the fatal scenarios that the GOP predicted aren’t happening. It’s possible those trends will change dramatically in the years to come, but right now, there are no signs of that.
Or take the economy. Remember threats that Obamanomics would strangle the recovery? That hasn’t played out either. The unemployment rate is down to 5.6 percent. Growth is strong. Obama can't take all the credit for the recovery. The Federal Reserve’s willingness to ignore inflation hawks and keep interest rates at zero is a key reason why the U.S.’s recovery is the envy of the developed world, for instance. But the fact is that the economy really has strengthened considerably over the past year. Republican arguments that Obama’s policies would stifle growth and prevent the economy from bouncing back no longer are credible.
As Senator Elizabeth Warren points out, the recovery has not been felt equally—wages are still stagnant. Obama made that point in his address. Yet, lower gas prices, even though they aren’t due to Obama’s actions, are effectively acting as a tax cut for middle class Americans across the country. In turn, optimism in the economy has ticked up considerably over the past two months—and so have Obama’s approval ratings. Americans are starting to believe in the recovery—and to give Obama credit for it.
Republican talking points largely haven't adjusted to this new reality. "We see our neighbors agonize over stagnant wages and lost jobs," said Senator Joni Ernst in the official Republican response to Obama's State of the Union. "We see the hurt caused by canceled healthcare plans and higher monthly insurance bills. We see too many moms and dads put their own dreams on hold while growing more fearful about the kind of future they'll be able to leave to their children." Clawson even said Obama's speech was "pretty much the same rhetoric we've heard for the past six years," which is simply not true.
But some Republicans are starting to realize that this message doesn't jibe with an improved economy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, opened the 114th Congress by trying to take credit for the recovery. But even if more Republicans adopt new talking points, the president and his party are generally the ones who benefit, politically, from an improving economy. Given Republicans' doomsday predictions through the first six years of Obama’s presidency, it’s hard to imagine voters crediting the GOP for the recovery over Obama.
McConnell has largely been treated as a political mastermind during Obama’s presidency. He was one of the leaders of “no compromise” strategy that the party adopted to stifle Obama’s agenda and prevent him from claiming credit for any bipartisan accomplishments. In many ways, it was a success. Republicans won landslide victories in 2010 and 2014. They soured the country on the president and have, until now, sunk his approval ratings on many issues.
But it came at a major cost, and the cost seems to be getting greater by the day: Republicans lost all ability to shape policy, especially in the first two years of Obama's presidency. Instead of compromising on issues like health care reform, financial regulation, and fiscal stimulus, Republicans sidelined themselves in lockstep opposition, determined not to leave fingerprints on the legislation. In turn, they adopted a message that each of Obama’s major legislative achievements—Obamacare, the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law, and the stimulus—were going to crush the economy and destroy different industries. It was an appealing message when the economy was still struggling. Now it's rapidly becoming a political liability.
That doesn’t mean McConnell’s strategy was wrong. If the GOP had compromised with Obama and pulled his policy rightward, voters almost certainly would have rewarded Democrats. The country might even be in better shape, but the Republican Party probably wouldn’t be. Ultimately, Republicans were in an impossible position. The economy was eventually going to recover, and Obama was going to get credit for it.
The president has spent the first six years of his presidency waiting for the moment he could take that credit, knowing it was coming. On Tuesday night, it came. Even with five separate responses to the president’s address, there was nothing Republicans could say to fight the growing sense that Obama’s policies are working and that the GOP has been wrong for the past six years.