America, meet Rebekah Erler. She was the one sitting between Michelle Obama and Jill Biden because she wrote a letter to the President, which provided the strongest line of Obama’s State of the Union speech: “We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.” He repeated it four times, the last iteration a grand reference to the American “family.” Indeed, we learned a lot about the Erler family during Obama’s speech. She waited tables. Her husband Ben’s construction business dried up after the 2008 crash, and he traveled long distances to do odd jobs. She went to community college and became an accountant. They had two sons. The rising economy brought a happy end to the story: Ben’s remodeling business was growing again.
Obviously, the President thought the Erlers were a good metaphor for the arc of his presidency. But they were more than that: they represent ground zero in American politics, the white working families who used to form the solid base of the Democratic party, then began to slip away to the Republicans in the late 1960s—especially the men. (Ben wasn’t in the first lady’s box with his wife, touching off a tweetnado). And they were a perfect frame for Obama’s speech, which was written to appeal to the Erlers of America.
There were twin sources of the white flight from the Democratic party. One was the sense that Democrats were only interested in taking money from people like the Erlers and giving it to deadbeats, or feeding the government bureaucracy, personified by the post office stereotype: slow-moving, sullen, entitled. The other was a matter of values: the Democrats were the counterculture party, an argument that is evaporating as the culture has moved on, accepting homosexuality, premarital sex and, soon, marijuana. The first argument remains strong, though. It was what propelled the Republican victory in 2014. Obamacare was perceived as classic “liberalism”—it took money from hard-working Americans and gave it to unhealthy deadbeats. Only it didn’t: it gave subsidies to the working poor; the indigent were already covered by Medicaid.
The striking thing about Obama’s latest round of proposals is how targeted they are: the centerpiece tax reforms take money from the wealthy and give it to middle-class taxpayers, people like the Erlers. You have to actually pay taxes to benefit from tax credits (except for the child care deduction, which becomes a stipend for those who don’t). Even his free community college proposal might have been a boon to Rebekah, as she struggled to learn accounting. This is quite the opposite of offering health insurance to a country that was already 85% covered. It is middle-class populism: money is taken from the wealthy and given to a broad swath of the population whose incomes have been stagnating for 30 years.
The Republicans will oppose this, but I suspect they may have a tough argument this time. Big money is about as popular in this country as big government, and the sense that the rich don¹t pay their fair share (Exhibit A: Mitt Romney) is as strong as the sense that government wastes a lot of money. “Lowering tax bills for the middle class is a perfectly fine idea,” says James Pethokoukis of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “I would probably raise the money in a different way. [Obama] wants to increase the capital gains tax, which should be as low as possible. But we’re only talking about $210 billion over ten years, which is little more than a rounding error, given the size of the budget.” There are other, more ambitious income redistribution plans afoot. Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) has proposed a .01% tax on stock transactions that would not only provide a $1000 middle class tax credit, but also put a damper on the high-speed Wall Street casino trading that helped lead to the last crash. This is a public argument worth having. It will be at the center of the 2016 presidential campaign, if we’re lucky.
“If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments,” the President said, “But let’s make them arguments worthy of this body and this country,” another statement that may have struck home in Erler-world, where the latter day bleat of American politics has come to seem sordid and silly. Obama’s personal transformation over the past six months has been stunning. He almost seemed defeated and uncaring last summer, playing golf instead of honoring an American journalist who had been beheaded. He was rejected by his own party, and then the country, in the fall. He has been on the defensive through most of his second term. But he has resurrected himself through action‹on immigration, on Cuba—and the still-iffy buoyancy of the economy. Like the Erlers, he has been struck and stunned, but he seems ready, finally, to rejoin the battle.