When President Obama delivers his State of the Union speech tomorrow night, he will have something to prove. It's something he has proven again and again over the course of his presidency: Obama is a campaigner, not a legislator.
Already leaked to the press are his initiatives to raise taxes on the wealthy and cut tax rates for lower-income and establish new federal programs for higher education and early childhood education. He will make the point that these are good and needed programs, that the lower and middle classes have missed out on the economic recovery of the past couple of years. It's their turn now, he might say (but won't, not in those words).
The problem is that he will be speaking to a Congress dominated by Republicans. The GOP hold large majorities on both sides of the Capitol, and they are unlikely to be persuaded by rhetoric extolling Democratic Party priorities. In fact, it can be argued that Obama knows these initiatives stand no chance in Congress and his announcements are aimed at getting the GOP majority on the record opposing these programs. Democrats expect these proposals to play well in the 2016 elections.
The State of the Union (surprise, surprise) is nothing more than a campaign speech, as it has been for at least 30 years. The way to get ambitious new programs into law is not by embarrassing congressional opponents into voting against your ideas. The way to get legislation passed is to work with Congress, to convince skeptics of the correctness of your ideas and the practicality of your programs.
I have seen nothing so far in Obama's proposal that will appeal to Republicans. He proposes paying for these programs by raising taxes on the wealthy, and part of those higher taxes will go to reduce taxes on low-income taxpayers. But already, many Americans pay little or no federal income tax, and the GOP has made tax cuts its all-powerful Excalibur. Good arguments can be made for some of Obama's taxation proposals — a higher tax on capital gains is unlikely to harm economic activity, and the estate tax (which opponents disingenuously call a "death tax" — the tax is on inheritance, not on death, and applies only to the largest of estates) is a realistic assurance against the stratifying influence of inherited wealth.
But Obama is not making an effort to persuade his opponents, as Lyndon Johnson would have done; he is only creating talking points for the next electoral campaign. He is campaigning, not leading the nation. This strategy is what we deserve as a country that expects presidential candidates to spend two or three arduous years seeking the presidency, honing skills of false empathy and subtle (or not so subtle) vile attacks on opponents' character. We have created this monster, or have allowed political consultants to create it.