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Obama Is Finally Having the Reagan Moment He Dreamed About for Years

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These are lines President Barack Obama hoped to deliver years ago.

"The verdict is clear," he said in Tuesday night's State of the Union address. "Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way. We can’t slow down businesses or put our economy at risk with government shutdowns or fiscal showdowns. We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these will have earned my veto."

Obama has been imagining his presidency in these terms since he was a senator, but for six years he's been buffeted by the prospect that he would never oversee the kind of economic improvement that left many people with positive feelings about Obamanomics. Way back in early 2008, in remarks that ring more awkwardly, but no less prescient, than they did at the time, Obama told the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal that “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.”

Obama is trying to change the country's trajectory, too, but in another direction entirely. Though Congress is controlled by a party that wants to reduce spending on the poor and working class, and ply the savings into lower taxes, especially for the wealthy, Obama wants to establish a new community college tuition guarantee—"a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college—to zero"—and enhance working and middle-income benefits like the Child Tax Credit. Simple, but costly ideas that he wants to pay for largely by increasing taxes on capital and inherited wealth. 

If Democrats controlled Congress, Congress wouldn't have treated Obama's address like a dead letter and Obama might have tailored it more narrowly, careful not to ask for more than Congress could plausibly deliver. But Democrats don’t control Congress, and won’t control it again until Obama is no longer president. Under the circumstances, it stands to reason that when Obama proposes progressive policies like these, he’s playing a longer game—guiding Democrats on the Hill as they battle against Republican budgets, or laying out a menu of policies for his successor, who might have better luck with Congress.

The Atlantic’s David Frum, once a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, posits that Obama’s real aim in proposing policies he knows Republicans will reject is to limit Hillary Clinton’s options, lest she be tempted to regress toward a mushier centrism. “Every time the president advances a concept that thrills his party’s liberal base, he creates a dilemma for Hillary Clinton. Does she agree or not? Any time she is obliged to answer, her scope to define herself is constricted,” Frum explains. “Obama’s highest priority over the next two years seems to be … to force Hillary Clinton to campaign and govern on his terms.”

This would be a more compelling argument if the White House and the burgeoning Clinton campaign weren’t closely aligned—if Obama were promoting ideas that offended Hillary Clinton’s brain trust, or if his consigliere, John Podesta, wasn’t leaving the White House to staff up and guide the Clinton campaign. Frum assumes that Clinton, the 2016 candidate, will see the country’s political challenges no differently than when she ran for president before the economic crisis in 2008, or when she represented New York state as a senator for two terms starting in 2001.

Most of the evidence points in a different direction. Yet if Obama and Clinton are more closely aligned than people assume, he wouldn’t need to use his State of the Union to confine her, but rather to begin the process of priming the public for her campaign. And that’s not strictly a matter of testing voter appetite for various policy ideas, but of building a case before the public that Democrats have had better economic ideas all along and that a Democratic approach to national policy deserves to reap the benefits of incumbency.

Tuesday’s State of the Union was thus a single component of a project that’s much more meaningful than budget brinksmanship or the 2016 campaign—to establish the parameters of the economic debate for years and years, the way Ronald Reagan’s presidency lent supply-side tax policy and deregulation a presumption of efficacy that shaped not just Republican, but Democratic policy for two decades.

Seven years into Obama's presidency, the U.S. economy is finally growing rapidly enough to boost his popularity and to sell the country on the idea that Obama’s peculiar brand of ostentatious incrementalism—building out and improving existing institutions, directing resources through them to the middle class—has worked, and should serve as a beacon not just for liberals, but for conservatives aspiring to recapture the presidency.

"At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits," Obama said. "Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in fifty years."

This is a depressing possibility for Obama’s political nemeses, including for progressives who believe his administration has been too solicitous of Wall Street and business interests and thus too encumbered—or even tainted—to topple corrupt systems and replace them with ones that respond to public needs.

They are right to be depressed. Because Republicans will excitedly reject them, the liberal policies Obama outlined in his address have come in for the most attention. But none of them is particularly radical. The remainder of Obama’s presidency, as outlined Tuesday, will leave us no closer to a fundamental restructuring of Wall Street, or to economic institutions that will distribute income and wealth much more evenly.

But it could have been much worse. Republicans spent the entirety of Obama’s first term (and most of his second) in the grip of a prophesy that every one of Obama’s significant achievements would contribute to an American cataclysm. That these predictions haven’t materialized now makes it easier for Obama to champion his own legacy at conservatism's expense.

It could have turned out much differently for Democrats, though. If Mitt Romney had won the presidency in 2012 and caught the wave of economic growth we’re now experiencing—after cutting both income taxes and domestic spending, and eliminating the Affordable Care Act—conservatives would have draped him in Reagan’s cloak, and the public would have warmed once again to the kinds of policies that George W. Bush’s presidency briefly discredited.

Obama wants his presidency to pay the same dividends. Tonight we got a glimpse of what it will look like if and when Democrats ultimately cash in.