Congressional Republicans wanted to intervene in Libya's civil war — until President Barack Obama intervened, and then they were against it. They wanted a payroll-tax cut until Obama wanted one, and then they tried to kill it. Republicans favored an individual mandate to reform health insurance until the Democrats passed one, and then they were opposed to that, too.
We've reached the point in Obama's presidency where, if he really wants something to happen, he would be better off just coming out against it and then sitting back and watching it sail through Congress. Because no matter what he proposes in his State of the Union address Tuesday night — Medicare reform, more infrastructure, tougher sanctions on Iran — it's sure to be cheered by Democrats in Congress and jeered by congressional Republicans who have gone all in at this point to oppose anything the president recommends.
So after recapping his foreign policy wins — killing Osama bin Laden; toppling Muammar Qaddafi; and signing trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea — Obama should forgo the pros and cons of his legislative agenda and put the focus on the big picture of how he plans to move the country from point A to point B and how he'll pay for it.
Frankly, that's about all the bandwidth people have, anyway. And here's what he should say:
That's it. Americans like rich people — we can't help ourselves. People make fun of the Kardashians, but they envy their jet-set lifestyle. Some kids grow up wanting to be Mos Def, but most of them want to be Jay-Z. Newt Gingrich does his best to portray Mitt Romney as Richie Rich, but he's secretly mad that his money's not as long. So the best way for Obama to win the argument when it comes to taxes is to remind people that he's a multimillionaire, too.
The federal budget — in Obama's second term or another president's first — hinges on top marginal tax rates staying at Bush-era lows or returning to Clinton-era rates. Obama wants to raise top marginal rates, but Republicans — who want to lower them — keep winning that argument because they've tagged any increase in taxes as "class warfare" or, more recently, "wealth envy." They say that Obama wants to punish the rich for being rich, while they claim that their plan makes everyone rich — and who's against that?
Which means that before Obama can sell a tax increase on the wealthy, he has to establish himself as one of the wealthy. And he should be explicit — it's not good enough to pass it off on his pal Warren Buffett or obliquely discuss how "the most fortunate among us can pay a little more."
Obama's likely 2012 rival, Romney, released his tax records Tuesday. They showed him paying roughly a 14 percent tax rate on millions in investments. Obama wants to raise the capital gains rate to 20 percent, but he can't do it if voters think he's doing it only to punish the wealthy.
Instead of singling out Romney or talking in the abstract about "millionaires and billionaires" paying their "fair share," Obama can make the case more effectively if he clearly identifies himself as one of those millionaires whose taxes would be raised. He should flatly say: "Michelle and I are rich. Our kids are set for life. But we should pay a little more in taxes — and we just hope that our fellow millionaires agree."
Everything else follows from this argument — and until he wins it, nothing else Obama says on taxes, jobs or the economy will ring true with the middle-class swing voters who will decide the next election. He can propose mortgage relief for people facing foreclosure, but Republicans will counter that Obama wants to "pick winners" by subverting the free market at the expense of people who have been paying their mortgages all along. He can argue for better school funding, but his opponents will just holler for local control.
Obama can say that in tough times, public assistance keeps children from going hungry and it keeps dollars circulating in the retail economy — then the GOP will call him the food stamp president. And they'll win the argument every time.
Until Obama gets folks to see him as the rich guy who looks out for the average guy, and not the guy who robs from the rich to give to the poor, that's how too many people will think of him. Right now his biggest problem is that too many people already do.
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.