Barack Obama achieved more in his first two years than any recent president has, but his party has suffered because he never managed to convey the value of his policies in broader context, to cast them as vital parts of some larger idea. Now faced with a divided Congress, he can't hope to match those achievements. But in his State of the Union Address Tuesday night, he belatedly furnished the unifying vision missing until now.
It brought together his whole agenda--past and present--under a single idea, which is that America is engaged in an urgent global competition for jobs and it is the government's business to make sure we're prepared. "The world has changed,'' he declared. "The competition for jobs is real.''
Although he sometimes sounded like a sloganeering business guru, Obama left no doubt that the lesson he took from last November's "shellacking'' was that voters want him to focus on the economy above all, and on job growth in particular. But he went further, drawing a path from the current economic struggles to a brighter future in which America's prosperity and standing in the world are restored.
"The question that's on the minds of the American people is, yes, how we get our economy accelerated in the short term,'' a senior administration official said yesterday. "But also--and most prominently--what about the long term? What are our prospects and what are the prospects for our children?''
The speech accomplished three things. At the broadest level, it supplied the theme of the president's forthcoming campaign for reelection and continued the process of repositioning him in the political center. It is even sillier now for anyone to suggest that Obama is "anti-business'' or "a socialist.'' More importantly, polls are already showing that fewer people view him that way. In fact, at moments during the speech, Obama seemed to be channeling Ronald Reagan.
He welcomed booming corporate profits and the robust stock market, touted free trade agreements, valorized small business owners, and praised the recent extension of the Bush-era tax cuts. He placed deficit reduction front and center, forswore earmarks, and practically flaunted a willingness to upset liberal interest groups, dropping all talk of climate change and opening the door to medical malpractice reform. It's hard to imagine what more he could have done to please conservatives, except maybe flash a birth certificate. From now on, he'll be a tougher target.
But the president did not abandon his liberal base. The second thing his speech did well was to cordon off liberal priorities like education, health care, science, and public works projects from the budget cutting soon to come. That he did so in the context of seeking to strengthen American business and global competitiveness was especially deft, since it will set Republican proposals, more severe than his own, against broader criteria than simply how much and how fast they cut the federal deficit. With China and India pouring resources into their workforce and infrastructure, Republicans will have to convince the nation that aggressive budget cuts are not tantamount to economic surrender.
Obama's third accomplishment was to establish an atmosphere of sober-minded purpose. His subtext was that it was time for members to put aside partisan posturing and get to work making a whole host of difficult choices. Of course, that's a tireless Washington nostrum. But so far at least, Obama seems willing to go further in sacrificing some of his own party's cherished programs and bending points of principle than anyone on the other side of the aisle. In an era of divided government, that is ultimately what will be required to move forward.
The White House is betting that for all that Republicans like to cry about how painful cuts are necessity, they'll flinch when the time comes--or, if they don't, the public will rise up in opposition. Tuesday night offered some indication that this might be so.
While it is true that Obama's speech was thin on detail, so too were the Republican responses from Representatives Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann. Neither so much as mentioned the two largest entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare, nor had anything to say about programs that conservatives actually support. We'll find out in a few weeks when the president unveils his budget.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.
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