Tacking to the right while showing his left
The moment was tailor-made for President Obama, who rose to national fame seven years ago on a call for unifying America’s blue and red states.
Standing before a divided Congress, with Democrats and Republicans seated side-by-side in a nod to comity, he delivered the appeal for unity many were expecting him to give.
“Governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties,” he said.
But the political reality behind his rhetoric was light-years removed from his lofty 2004 Democratic convention debut, when the then-Senate candidate from Illinois declared that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.”
Now, a president at midterm, he’s wiser and battle-scarred, and appears to have bounced back from the November election that delivered what he had described as a “shellacking.”
With a much-discussed, and thus far successful, turn toward the center, he has strengthened his hand as he prepares to battle Republicans in Congress and launch his reelection campaign.
Another president might have used the occasion to reset his relationship with the voters. President Clinton, in his 1995 State of the Union, after Republicans took over Congress, frankly admitted he’d “made my mistakes” and learned “the importance of humility.”
Obama did no such thing.
Last month’s bipartisan tax deal with Republicans and his recent address to a memorial service for victims of the Tucson shootings have lifted his popularity, polls show. Emboldened by his rebound, he seems prepared to go after Republicans with renewed confidence.
As much as anything, Tuesday night was about winning this year, a pivotal time of testing for Obama and Republicans that sets the stage for the 2012 presidential election.
Aside from the flowery rhetoric and pleas for bipartisan cooperation, his speech was something of a throw-down to conservative lawmakers.
“At stake right now is not who wins the next election,” Obama said, answering those who had described his remarks as an unofficial campaign kickoff.
Still, the broad outlines of an all-but-announced reelection run were clearly visible: a renewed call to raise taxes on the very wealthy, a promise of more higher-education aid for the middle class, new federal initiatives in scientific research and energy technology, and a renewed focus on jobs, in the form of fresh spending for road and bridge repair and high-speed rail construction.
For mainstream voters, particularly the independents whose mood swings dominate today’s politics, he offered a more tight-fisted, business-friendly approach to governing than his first two years in office, which were heavy on big federal initiatives.
For conservatives, there were proposals to lower the corporate tax rate, reduce medical malpractice costs and let ROTC and military recruiters back on all college campuses. For those on the left, there was a new push for immigration reform, a pledge to protect Social Security from efforts to privatize or slash benefits and a renewed vow to start withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan next summer.
“Winning the future,” a campaign-style slogan Obama used repeatedly, is how the White House branded the speech (unaware, apparently, that prospective Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich wrote a book with that title a few years back).
In contrast to GOP demands for deep cuts in spending, he delivered a lengthy sales pitch for a series of new initiatives designed to be paid for by cuts elsewhere. His top economic advisor, Gene Sperling, acknowledged that Obama’s call for a spending freeze on non-security discretionary spending amounted to little more than a “down payment” on the debt-reduction challenge the president largely avoided in his speech.
But by adding two years to an earlier freeze proposal that went nowhere (when Democrats had large majorities in Congress), Obama wants voters to see he’s serious about taking a more austere approach to spending, once the economy recovers.
Still, his budget, to be released next month, will probably call for hundreds of billions more in spending in coming years than the House Republican Study Committee recently proposed.
Obama sought to frame the upcoming spending debate in terms of America’s global competitiveness.
He couched his plan for new federally funded clean-energy research as “our generation’s Sputnik moment.”
In doing so, he appeared to be playing on fears of a rising China in the same way that earlier presidents exploited Cold War concerns about the Soviet Union, though his proposal does not approach the scale of the U.S. space program back then and may not get the same positive response from Congress.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said earlier Tuesday that he was “hopeful that the word ‘investment’ really isn’t more stimulus spending and a bigger government here in Washington.”
Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan, in the televised Republican response, warned that America is at “a tipping point” and that without the spending cuts the GOP is proposing the “next generation will inherit a stagnant economy and a diminished country.”
The president’s speech was a clear-eyed reflection of where he stands. His agenda going forward is minimalist, especially when compared with the big gains of his first two years. Safeguarding those achievements against Republican efforts to roll them back has become his overarching goal.
Self-assured and increasingly comfortable in his role as national leader, Obama proved again Tuesday night that he can seize the big moment.
If the political winds continue to blow his way, he will be a formidable foe for the Republicans, this year and next.