Last year, Democrats lamented the lack of a coherent party economic platform leading up to the 2014 midterm elections. Privately, leaders complained they had no message at all. They ran away from President Barack Obama, leading one top Republican strategist to sarcastically praise them after Republicans romped in November.
On Tuesday, bolstered by a noticeably improving U.S. economy, Obama excited progressives by making a populist pitch to the nation for higher taxes on the rich and new government programs.
Some Democrats said the president “sounded like Elizabeth Warren,” the firebrand freshman senator who has tried to push the party to the left. His State of the Union address could shape the debate for the 2016 presidential elections.
“He did a solid job of talking up the economy and linking that to his previous policies,” one Senate Democratic leadership aide said. “He seems more liberated to lay out principled positions now. If only the elections had been held last night rather than back in November.”
At the heart of Obama’s speech was the announcement of a plan to hike taxes by $320 billion on wealthier Americans, in order to fund new tax credits and breaks for low- and middle-income families and publicly fund community college.
There was a lot for progressives to like in this speech. Obama also called for paid sick leave, boosting the minimum wage, and gender pay equity. At the same time, he mocked the Republicans' agenda as simplistic, especially in its push to pass through the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
“Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline,” he said, proceeding to prod Congress to approve an infrastructure plan.
Stephanie Taylor, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said afterward that there was only one “sore thumb” in his speech — his proposal for more power to unilaterally approve trade deals.
"President Obama is sounding more like Elizabeth Warren, and that's a good thing for Democrats because her economic populist ideas are super popular,” said Taylor, whose group is pushing Democratic candidates who may challenger former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton next year to embrace Warren's policies.
“On issues like taxing the rich and making college affordable, the president took giant steps in the right direction — and Americans want Democrats to go even further in the direction of big, bold, economic populist ideas.”
Warren herself seemed pleased with Obama’s speech, after opposing his administration on two high-profile battles over the past month. Cameras showed her standing up and applauding after Obama threatened to veto any bill that would roll back the landmark Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
After Obama’s speech, Warren tweeted her approval:
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, another high-profile liberal Democrat, echoed Warren’s praise. He said, in less blunt terms, that it was about time Obama came around to the message.
“Tonight, President Obama laid out his clearest vision yet for how the United States must tackle the greatest challenge of our time — income inequality — and said what Americans across the country have known for some time: the time to act and to defeat this challenge is now,” de Blasio said after Obama’s speech.
The universal Democratic joy was a stark and almost unbelievable contrast from two months ago. In the days after the election, political scientists Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin released a scathing report concluding that Democrats suffered such deep election losses because they lacked an economic agenda.
Teixeira and Halpin said Democrats had essentially “ceded control of the national campaign” by refusing to address middle-class America’s concerns about their economic standing. They instead decided to “try their luck” with a series of local campaigns, and they failed, the authors said.
On Tuesday, as Obama appealed to a nation, that changed.
“Few people can make the case for strengthening America’s middle class like President Obama,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Illinois), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. “Tonight, the president laid out a vision for our country that puts working families first, and I couldn’t agree more.”
This post was updated to clarify the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's role.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.