Just a week into the new year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was faced with a rhetorical dilemma: every talking point he had about the economy was wrong and he wasn't sure what to do about it.
McConnell had argued a "regulatory onslaught" was hurting the economy, and that turned out to be wrong. He said the Affordable Care Act was hurting growth, and that turned out to be wrong. He said taxes were standing in the way of job creation, and that turned out to be ridiculously wrong.
And so, McConnell switched gears, abandoned all of his talking points, and in early January, adopted a new posture: the nation's economy is looking brighter, and it's all because of Americans' "expectation of a new Republican Congress."
In other words, according to McConnell, congressional Republicans deserve credit for the improved economy, even though they haven't actually done anything. President Obama heard about this, and as of this morning, he seems rather amused.
President Barack Obama told Democrats on Friday that their work has improved the economy while strengthening the middle class, and jabbed at Republicans for trying to take the credit after stiffly opposing his agenda for six years. Speaking at the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting, Obama said it is "no accident" that his policies have lifted the country out of the recession he inherited when he took office. GOP predictions of "doom and gloom" over policies like health care have proven untrue, the president said. Now, job growth and positive economic news has led Republicans to adopt Democrats' mantra of being "the party of the middle class," he said.
Specifically referencing McConnell, the president told DNC members, "As he was coming in, after having tried to block every single thing that we had done to strengthen the economy, starts looking at the jobs numbers and says, 'You know, it's getting better because we just got elected and people are feeling more optimistic. I didn't know that's how the economy worked."
Folks laughed, of course, but Obama's right about the shift in GOP rhetoric. McConnell's silly boasts aren't to be taken seriously, but his party has begun talking more about issues like economic inequality and wage growth -- issues that Republicans used to argue were verboten, class-warfare-style topics.
"I think the shift in rhetoric that they're engaging in is good if it actually leads them to take different actions," the president added this morning. "If it doesn't, then it's just spin. If it doesn't, if you're just trying to repackage the same top-down economics and use the words middle class attached to it, if you're just going to keep on cutting taxes at the top and not raise minimum wages for folks who are struggling, then it's just spin, trying to bamboozle folks."
Of course, the larger point is that the president has had some success in changing the direction of the national conversation. As a candidate for the White House in 2007, Obama said he saw Reagan as a model, not for governing ideas, but for moving the political dialog to the right -- after Reagan, Americans suddenly saw Democrats talking about more limited government, deficit reduction, and spending cuts, suggesting the Republican icon had succeeded in moving the pillars for what's politically possible in a more conservative direction.
When Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Ted Cruz claim to be outraged about limited prosperity and the widening wealth gap, it suggests Obama is moving those same rhetorical pillars to the left. This isn't to say Republicans are less right-wing -- they're actually more conservative than ever -- but the president has changed the conversation in such a way as to force them to highlight issues they would otherwise prefer to ignore.
Once that foundation is in place, it's easier to have a debate about which agenda best addresses the underlying problems and which agenda intends to "bamboozle" people.