Family Planning

Obama’s focus on women and families in the State of the Union will likely be the core of Hillary Clinton’s economic message.

If Hillary Clinton runs, President Obama’s standing will shape the structure of her campaign.

Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

Late last year, Hillary Clinton gave the keynote address to the Massachusetts Conference for Women. The bulk of the speech was devoted to the opportunities and challenges that women of all classes face. But at the midpoint, she took a slight turn toward electoral politics.

“We need to get paid leave provisions on every state ballot by 2016 that we can possibly manage to do,” said Clinton. “[T]he lack of flexible and predictable work schedules, no paid family leave, very few affordable and reliable child care options—this is all part of a larger story about how hard it is today for families to hold together, hold together their lives, hold together a middle-class lifestyle. It can feel like pushing a boulder uphill every single day.”

Now, compare this with Tuesday’s State of the Union, where President Obama gave an assertive defense of Democratic Party liberalism and announced the party’s agenda for the post-recession era. “Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers. … Think about that. And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home,” he said, continuing on to a call for equal pay. “[T]his Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work.”

It’s not that Obama is lifting from Clinton as much as they’re both reading from the same playbook. The “war on women” of the 2012 and 2014 election cycles has morphed into an anti-inequality pitch centered on the economic concerns of women and families. And Tuesday night, President Obama brought the language to the national stage, elevating women’s economic issues as a core priority of both Democrats and his administration.

This is risky. If Clinton runs, Obama’s standing will shape the structure of her campaign. If Obama is unpopular, then Clinton will have to run away from the president and present herself as a decisive break from a failed administration. But it’s to her good fortune that Obama is relatively well-liked and should finish his term with decent approval ratings, if the economy continues on its present trajectory.

In which case, the language of this year’s State of the Union will form the core of Clinton’s economic rhetoric—a way to frame the variety of Democratic proposals as tools for protecting the interests of women as workers (equal pay and the minimum wage), caregivers (child care tax credit), and as women (health care and reproductive rights). It also provides a useful way to talk about distribution: not as a grab from the successful, but as a way to give families a share in our growth.

Of course, there’s a political side here, and it’s easy to see: Democrats want to solidify their advantage with single, working, and low-income women. A platform centered on their broad concerns—and not just reproductive health—stands to strengthen their ground and expand the appeal of the party.

We shouldn’t underestimate the electoral gains of winning more women’s votes. Because of its terrible performance with minorities, the GOP needs to increase white turnout—and maximize its share of white voters—to win national elections. A Clinton who peels white women from the Republican coalition—even in small numbers—is a Clinton who does huge damage to GOP chances in critical states such as Florida, Virginia, and Ohio. Strong performance with white women could buoy Clinton against the drop-off among other demographic groups, like black Americans (although there’s slim evidence that blacks will leave the electorate with Obama off the ballot).

One big question is how Republicans respond to this female- and family-focused platform. In some ways, it’s an opportunity. “If you contrast what was on offer last night with some of the ideas that, say, Utah Senator Mike Lee has proposed,” writes Ross Douthat for the New York Times, “there’s a very interesting right-left debate to be had around higher education reform, tax reform (family-friendly and otherwise), and other issues as well.” This isn’t a vision for compromise as much as it’s a starting point for conservatives who don’t want to cede the ground of “middle-class economics” to Democrats.

Then again, for as much as Republicans such as Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney have begun to treat inequality as a serious concern, it’s also true that key parts of the GOP—and the congressional party in particular—are still stuck in a pose of constant opposition. Rather than build better policies, these Republicans might redouble their commitment to the present orthodoxy of deregulation and upper-income tax cuts.

Indeed, this urge to stick to the script was on view in the Republican response to the State of the Union, helmed by Joni Ernst, the newly minted senator from Iowa:

Let’s tear down trade barriers in places like Europe and the Pacific. Let’s sell more of what we make and grow in America over there so we can boost manufacturing, wages, and jobs right here, at home.

Let’s simplify America’s outdated and loophole-ridden tax code. Republicans think tax filing should be easier for you, not just the well-connected. So let’s iron out loopholes to lower rates—and create jobs, not pay for more government spending.

This, in slightly different form, is the same GOP agenda of the last two presidential elections. And although it’s possible the third time will be the charm, I wouldn’t bet the White House on those odds.