Obama's big speech frames the 2012 election campaign

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 25, 2011 

President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address.

OLIVIER DOULIERY/ABACA PRESS/MCT

WASHINGTON — The President Barack Obama who addressed the nation Tuesday night was foreshadowing his likely tack in his 2012 re-election campaign — a more centrist, pro-business and economy-focused Democrat.

He was careful to project more optimism and less defiance than he did in his State of the Union speech a year ago. Last year, Obama told Democrats that "we still have the largest majority in decades" and admonished them not to "run for the hills."

This time, he said that "new laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans" and that the two parties will advance "together, or not at all."

Last year, he rallied Democrats to pass his health care overhaul without Republicans. This year, he vowed to threaten any spending bills with pork-filled "earmarks" in them — something Republicans have already agreed to, but his fellow Democrats in the Senate haven't.

Obama's shift in tone is a recognition that he now needs Republican buy-in to get anything through Congress. But it's also Obama's way of urging voters to hold Republicans equally accountable for what happens next — or what doesn't.

He went beyond the voguish post-Tucson spirit of bipartisan civility to frame his priorities with sunny optimism.

"The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can't just stand still," Obama said, setting his recurring theme.

He insisted that America could stay ahead of China and India — but said that requires government investment to foster innovation, to improve education and to modernize the transportation and communications infrastructure.

Also noteworthy was what issues got little or no mention, and when he did mention one, he didn't spell out any specifics on what he'd do about it: health care, immigration, global warming, gun control, and overhauling the financing of Social Security and Medicare.

While he proposed to freeze spending on non-security discretionary programs for five years, the $400 billion that might save over a decade would amount to just one-tenth of the $4 trillion savings that his bipartisan debt commission called for. What about all their recommendations? Obama didn't say.

Obama drew on themes that presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton explored in their own respective second State of the Union speeches, in 1983 and 1995, after both had suffered losses in midterm elections — and before they went on to win re-elections of their own.

He echoed Reagan's conviction that America had turned the corner after recession and was "on the mend," but that Americans' needed "realism and idealism" to march forward. And Obama echoed Clinton's acknowledgement that voters' had rejected Democrats two months earlier.

Both Reagan and Clinton also called for bipartisan solutions to long-term problems, though if Obama is pushing anything akin to Reagan's Social Security fix or Clinton's welfare reform bill, he failed to spell it out Tuesday night.

Reagan and Clinton both were lower in the polls at this point in their presidencies than Obama is today, and both won re-election. Obama's approval rating has rebounded to around 50 percent in the latest polls from 42 percent in November. Since then, he's compromised with Republicans to extend tax cuts and spoke reassuringly to Americans following the Tucson tragedy. He seems to have learned lessons from both.

Obama's State of the Union address may have been focused on the economy, but its message framed the politics of 2012.

He insisted that his primary concern is "not who wins the next election," but Wednesday he'll fly to the election-battleground state of Wisconsin, which he won in 2008, but where Democrats suffered major losses last fall. Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, will travel to Indiana, a normally Republican state that Obama won in 2008, but that's cooled to him since.

"The future is ours to win," Obama said.

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