By: Edward-Isaac Dovere



For progressives, Tuesday’s State of the Union isn’t so much about what President Barack Obama says, but how forcefully and expansively he says it.


They’re looking less for a specific wish list — though they have one of those, too — than for Obama to deliver a robust response to what he has repeatedly called “the defining issue of our time.”


In a tone-setting speech in December, Obama embraced an increase in the minimum wage and spoke of his commitment to broad principles. Now he’ll have to balance how much further to take that to energize his base against the damage he could do to red-state Democrats — particularly in Senate races where the party’s on defense — by seeming to swing too far.


But the politician whose fate progressives say is really in the balance is Obama himself. Though the president’s promise has them more excited — and even hopeful — than they’ve been in years, they warn that he’ll either follow through with a State of the Union that really starts bringing their response to income inequality to the mainstream or squander his last chance to deliver on the promise of his 2008 election.


“This is the last State of the Union before people can see the sunset,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. “You can frame this. You can talk about things in a lot of different ways, but fundamentally, you’re talking about the notion of direction.”


Progressives say Obama will have to directly address — though likely not by name — recent speeches by Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin that have described inequality as a behavioral problem.


And they’re looking for some attention to the generally agreed-upon progressive wish list: an executive order raising the minimum wage for government contractors, a vocal defense of his job creation record along with a proposal for a new jobs bill, a fresh case for fresh infrastructure investment and a new call for immigration reform — including executive actions that cut back detentions and deportations while waiting for Congress to act.


“Of the State of the Unions, this one’s huge — and it’s huge because these issues are lingering, because of our economy, because of the gridlock and deadlock in Congress,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus.


White House aides have been reluctant to preview what will or won’t be in the speech, and would not comment on meeting progressives’ expectations. But there is a clear sense of urgency mounting in the building, derived in part from a president who seems increasingly attuned to the ticking clock.


Progressives can’t do a whole lot if Obama doesn’t deliver, other than be disappointed and show up in smaller numbers to the polls in November — and warn the president that he would be on track to fail, by his own standards: “I can tell you that I will measure myself at the end of my presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class, and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this society,” he told author David Remnick, in a New Yorker profile published this week.


For progressives, living up to that will require more than tactics and bullet points.


Obama has some leeway, they argue, with a budget agreement that removes the threat of a shutdown or constant negotiations. But nonetheless, they’re desperate to see him accept the political reality of the past three years, exemplified by the stalled efforts to renew unemployment insurance benefits in the past few weeks: Republicans resist the Obama agenda, and any proposed new spending is met with the requirement to make cuts elsewhere.


The president needs to use the speech to explain why that trade-off no longer makes sense, said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).


“I hope that the president will make it very clear that when the middle class is struggling and we have more people today living in poverty than any time in American history, that we are not going to cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid,” Sanders said.


There are lobbyists who make their whole salaries getting a sentence, or even a passing mention of an issue, into the State of the Union. Progressives will be paying that kind of attention, listening for words like “low-wage workers,” and even better, a reference to the fast-food workers’ strikes with a line like, “low-wage workers are making their voices heard around the country, and this speaks directly to the issue of income inequality.”


Obviously, to many progressives, the place for Obama to start would be to announce that he will sign the long-sought executive order to raise the minimum wage for government contractors — workers employed at government-run facilities across the country. They don’t even pause to think about it. More than just talking about action, Obama could take it that night, immediately increasing the pay of people from $7.25 per hour to $10.10.


That sort of action’s needed, they say, because they’re not convinced that all the polls showing widespread bipartisan support for raising the hourly rate will make much difference in Congress. Just look at what happened to the efforts to extend unemployment insurance.


“It’s great that [the public is] on our side, it’s great that they want to see the minimum wage increased, but as much as I believe in my optimistic heart there’s some way we can do it, the smart money is that we can’t,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the other Progressive Caucus co-chairman.


Announcing the executive order from the podium, Grijalva said, would be “huge.”


“That kind of specificity on something like that would be important,” he said.


Still, there’s not a lot of optimism Obama will make that move — the White House has been saying for months that it prefers a larger solution that passes through Congress and affects all workers, and when Ellison asked Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Jason Furman about the executive order at an event last week, he got a similar response: “There’s no doubt that the biggest thing we could do is something legislative.”


They would also like Obama to spend some time addressing the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the U.S. is negotiating with 11 Pacific Rim countries and the overall “fast track” authority for trade deals. They argue that, given the state of the American economy and the need for jobs, the president should partially, if not entirely, pull away from agreements that further enable the influx of goods made overseas, and at least demand that stronger labor standards be included in the final wording.


“You cannot credibly talk about addressing inequality, and say, ‘Oh, by the way, here’s another trade deal,’” Ellison said. “He’s opening himself up for charges of hypocrisy.”


En route the other day to North Carolina for the president’s announcement of a new manufacturing hub as part of a larger public-private partnership initiative first announced in last year’s State of the Union, White House press secretary Jay Carney signaled that this is unlikely to happen.


Fast track authority “is a priority of the president’s, his entire trade agenda, and we’re working with Congress to move that forward,” Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.


Without more protections abroad, though, progressives would at least hope to hear him speak more about the role that unions could have at home. That, they feel, should be part of a revised orientation for the American economy that makes up the bulk of the speech: explicitly less deference to corporations, and more priorities and protections for workers.


And the best way to make clear which side he’s on, they feel, would be to turn away from what’s become an entrenched Democratic reluctance to say nice things about organized labor.


“The most effective way to do something about inequality is to empower workers to bargain for better pay and secure benefits,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “With unions under assault from deep-pocketed, anti-worker forces across the nation, the president can use his State of the Union pulpit to remind Congress, and the rest of the country, that collective-bargaining rights and a strong labor movement help level the playing field and are meaningful solutions to the problem of inequality.”


Progressives believe the timing, the economics and the political mood are aligned: Next week, Obama will be speaking to a country that, 50 years after the State of the Union in which President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty, has even more people living in poverty. Long-term unemployment and the stock market both continue to hit records. And fewer and fewer people feel like they’re members of the middle class.


“There’s a sea change. We think that this is the moment for him to frame a much bigger debate,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. “He has a gift of imagining a brighter future, but in this moment, it has to be a forceful argument against the other baloney that people are being fed.”