The political calculus always made a GOP-dominated Congress an even possibility following the 2014 mid-term elections. Republicans saw where tapping into the historic pattern of malaise among the Democratic base in off-year elections could produce dividends, and they did just that. The president, no political neophyte by any means and very much aware of those dynamics, began sporting a new mojo even before the GOP-dominated face of Capitol Hill became reality. There was a bold, muscular tone when he spoke to issues like raising the minimum wage or immigration or education or equal pay for women.
The president seemed to speak with conviction when asserting that people who were willing to work full-time should not be paid a wage that left them below the poverty line, as he made the case for increasing the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 per hour. Likewise was there evidenced a determination we weren’t quite used to when he announced plans for the executive order on immigration to remedy a situation that caused families to be separated. And in education, when he proposed tax relief for the families of students attending community college, it was another instance of Obama directing his attention to the concerns of people on the lower economic rungs that frankly did not hitherto much get to center stage in the vistas defined by this president.
The emphasis clearly was, with Obama, on continued strengthening of the middle class, reflecting a belief that a buoyant middle class is one of the most important drivers for the American economy remaining viable. This seemingly low-grade highlighting of issues relative to the poor had earlier taken some flak from the president’s side of the tracks, notably from Princeton University’s Cornel West, who has accused Obama of being too beholden to Wall Street for economic change to take place that positively impacts the society’s most vulnerable.
Whether or not that projection of seeming short shrift paid to problems affecting the poor was something forced onto his radar by blowback coming from West and a few others, we don’t know. But we suspect that when, for instance, an event comes around like last week’s 50th anniversary of the Selma march, that provides Obama with an opportunity to identify massively with the Black experience in America, it’s hard to imagine him not being conscious of what’s at stake, in terms of his relationship with the Black community. This, after all, is a president who for six years has had but one frontline African-American cabinet officer (Eric Holder) in his administration. But, no surprise, he did deliver an excellent address in Selma. And here too, the speech, while duly acknowledging the sacrifice made during the civil rights struggles, also wasn’t short on swinging for the fences. Like imploring his audience to get on their Congressional representatives to renew the voting rights legislation that was passed over such brutal opposition back in the 60s and which so many states have lately gutted. Or when he spoke eloquently about African Americans’ love of this country, in a not-too-veiled reference to Rudolph Giuliani’s idiotic remark questioning the president’s patriotism. But it was, again, Obama picking certain spots in which to be robustly presidential. And evidently loving it.
The president knows one thing for sure: there is precious little, if anything at all, emanating from the White House on which he is likely to get cooperation from the twin-headed monster that is Capitol Hill. A raised minimum wage will bust the economy, say Republicans. The Chamber of Commerce, ritual supporters of the GOP, sees the president’s action to give legal status to thousands of undocumented immigrants as a positive economic move; not so the GOP, in its strident opposition. And given the hardliners that now constitute the GOP mainstream, good luck with any current-day voting rights action.
As his thoughts turn in the home stretch of his tenure to legacy, President Obama has apparently decided that Republicans arrayed in numbers he has not previously seen in Washington will be no impediment to burnishing his image. That the opposition will continue attempting to thwart him every step of the way is a given. As a tactic, though, this is hardly sufficient to compromise the Obama legacy.