In this week's State of the Union address, President Obama did more to reset the political debate than the policy debate. He offered only a modest menu of new ideas. But he moved ambitiously to politically reposition his agenda. Most important, he continued the transformation he has undertaken since November--an evolution from prime minister to president. It was the speech of a leader with diminished legislative ambitions and expanding hopes of reelection.
Obama's first two years were dominated by the grueling and frequently grimy struggle to pass legislation. Partly, that was by necessity: The enormity of the economic collapse he inherited demanded a substantial legislative response. But he signed his stimulus plan (like it or not) into law less than a month after he took office. From that point forward, he chose to focus his presidency largely on wrangling with Congress. Those prolonged and persistent legislative fights, particularly the forced march to health care reform, shaped his public image more than anything else he did. In that, Obama continued the tradition of Democratic presidents who tend to see themselves, particularly when they first arrive, mostly as prime ministers measured by their success at passing their party's program.
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Obama emerged from his months in the legislative trenches with many successes. In signing comprehensive health care reform, he succeeded where Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton had failed. His financial-reform legislation, though diluted, still provided a major modernization of federal oversight. In all, he probably signed into law more consequential legislation over the course of a single Congress than any other president had done since Lyndon Johnson during the heyday of the Great Society in 1965 and 1966.