When it comes to the 2014 elections, Democrats are reaching back for a message made famous by Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992: "It's the economy, stupid."
Democrats, led by President Obama, have made clear that income inequality will be at the top of the agenda through 2014 — and even beyond. As the first order of business when Congress reconvened this month, the Democratic-controlled Senate pushed a bipartisan bill to extend emergency unemployment benefits for three months.
As early as Tuesday, the Senate is expected to test whether the bill can break a possible Republican filibuster. Even if it fails, the effort is notable for the way Democrats framed their argument not only around aiding the needy, but lifting the the economy for all.
— Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) January 6, 2014
Up next, Democrats are planning to call for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2015. Obama is expected to underscore that pledge in his upcoming State of the Union address, and to tout it in speeches around the country as well.
At the state level, Democrats are also aiming to get minimum wage initiatives on the ballot to boost turnout for key Senate races.
The coordinated effort to address economic issues so early in the new year could make for a very effective campaign pitch come November.
Voters are generally more attuned to the economy than any other issue, and this year is no exception. On those two policy proposals in particular, Americans largely support extending unemployment benefits, while seven in 10 support boosting the minimum wage. Even a clear majority of Republicans (57 percent) favor upping the minimum wage, according to a November CBS/New York Times survey.
"The more Republicans obsess on repealing the Affordable Care Act and the more we focus on rebuilding the middle class with a minimum-wage increase, the more voters will support our candidates," Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The New York Times.
Moreover, the early economic focus is about defining Republicans as heartless and out of touch — Obama said last year that denying unemployment benefits would be "just plain cruel" — before they can define themselves. As Slate's John Dickerson wrote this week, Democrats picked up seats in 2012 "by defining their opponents as extreme early in the process and then pouncing on mistakes."
"Replicating this success is a two-part process," he added. "First, Democrats must prepare the ground, then their candidates must shove their opponents into the hole."
To be sure, the timing of the push to extend unemployment benefits was unavoidable, since those benefits expired at the end of the year. And Democrats generally support both those policies, election year or not.
Still, some Republicans have accused Democrats of pivoting to the economy solely as a distraction from the GOP's preferred talking point, ObamaCare.
"Let's be clear, the reason why the White House is so actively pushing this is they want to desperately talk about anything but ObamaCare," Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) said Sunday.
"They need to change the subject," Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noon agreed.
Meanwhile, GOP election outfits like the National Republican Senatorial Committee have continued to hammer away at ObamaCare, believing that highlighting problems with the health-care law is the party's best bet for winning in November.
Democrats aren't so sure.
"Our Republican colleagues should take note," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said of his party's 2014 agenda. "Issues like job creation, minimum wage, and unemployment insurance are going to weigh on the minds of voters far more than ObamaCare by the time the 2014 elections roll around."