The push by President Obama and Democrats to extend unemployment insurance for 1.3 million people whose benefits ran out at the end of last month is only the first step in a series of debates in which the party will try to cast Republicans as out of step with Americans still struggling economically.
Democrats, both nationally and in states like Kentucky and South Dakota, will call for increasing the minimum wage, a policy change backed by the majority of Americans but largely opposed by conservative-leaning lawmakers and business groups. Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Florida, Wisconsin and Maine are attacking Republican incumbents who have refused to expand Medicaid in their states, looking to cast those Republicans as unwilling to offer health insurance to low-income people.
Obama, in his State of the Union address later this month, is expected to repeat his call to raise taxes in other to fund universal pre-kindergarten programs.
On all of these issues, Democrats are pressing a strong populist message against Republicans. These programs would disproportionately benefit people who earn little or no income and particularly in the case of hiking the minimum wage, would be effectively redistributing wealth from higher-income business owners to low-wage workers.
For Democrats, this populism benefits in three ways. First, it puts the party further in line with the direction of Democrat activists, who are increasingly adopting the rhetoric of politicians like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who argue that rising income inequality and the struggles of people to advance economically are now the defining problems of America.
Secondly, particularly for President Obama, talking about other issues will help distract from any controversies around the rollout of his health care law, which remains bumpy.
And third, unlike Obamacare,” polls suggest that raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid and giving unemployment insurance to more Americans are popular ideas with the majority of Americans. They could also split the Republican Party, dividing Tea Party Republicans from more establishment figures.
Republicans, too, seem aware of the growing worries about income equality and the challenges of people at the bottom rung of American society. As the Washington Post reported today, potential Republican presidential 2016 candidates Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, as well as House Majority Whip Eric Cantor, are all delivering speeches on this subject this week alone.
Cantor is expected to call for greater expansion of school vouchers, while Ryan is likely to emphasize tax cuts. The Republicans’ proposals are not new, nor are they likely to get much support from Obama or Democrats.
But they establish that 2014 will be a year in which inequality is one of the defining clashes between the two parties.