Obama's SOTU: Centrism or Cleverly-Disguised Battle Calls?

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Did the State of the Union show President Obama to be a radical moderate or a partisan warrior? Reviews are mixed. Politico's Glenn Thrush and Carrie Budoff Brown write that those heart-warming words about bipartisan cooperation Tuesday night were actually "picking a fight" with his foes in Congress. The president wanted to appear as though he was moving to the center, they argue, but he was actually standing firm on his core principles, saying, "We will move forward together or not at all."

Obama offered concessions on free trade, the tax code, and earmarks. But despite the civil tone, Obama wants to "draw a stark contrast, between his jobs-centric philosophy and the GOP’s determination to cut government first and ask questions later," Politico says. His analogy that sweeping cuts in spending were like hacking the engine out of an airplane were "fighting words" to Republicans.

But many other pundits saw the speech as a careful move toward Clintonian triangulation. The Wall Street Journal's Gerald F. Seib says that though Obama's theme was "winning the future," it translates to "winning the center." Seib explains, "To those independent voters who abandoned him in November, and to those disillusioned admirers who had begun to doubt that he actually represented the post-partisan leader advertised in 2008, Mr. Obama sketched out a kind of grand political bargain to move the government and the nation in the direction he wants." Further debate on this theme:

  • I Didn't See Any Centrist, The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin writes. "If you were expecting a moderate Obama or a bold Obama, you were disappointed, most likely, by Tuesday's State of the Union Address. ... The speech was both undisciplined and boring. But it did remind us that, at heart, Obama is a liberal who wishes to expand, seemingly without limitation, the reach of the federal government. ... If the officials in the White House thought this was a helpful speech, they are more isolated from reality than I feared."
  • 'Late Clintonian Minimalism' Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News, as noted by Jeff Poor at The Daily Caller. "I was also struck by the line, 'We do big things,' ... But what was so ironic about this speech and what was wrong with it was that the content of the speech entirely undermined that." Explains Krauthammer: "all he recommended, all in the laundry list, the first half of the speech was all the things that government was going to do was small ball. It was like late Clintonian minimalism about high-speed rail, more spending on roads and solar shingles. I mean look, that's not the Apollo program."
  • Vintage Obama, The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn argues, saying the president "reached back to the themes of 2008, and of the primary campaign that stretched back in 2007. It wasn't just the constant gestures of outreach to Republicans, starting with his recognition of new Speaker John Boehner. It was also the focus on the economy's long-term difficulties--decaying infrastructure, an insufficiently educated workforce, too much debt. This was not a speech about boosting growth for 2011. It was a speech about boosting growth for 2021." Wonders Cohn: "assuming this is a harbinger of the message Obama intends to take to the country, starting tomorrow and perhaps all the way through November 2012, will it work?" He says it all depends on the economy.
  • 'Cognitive Dissonance' "We don’t know whether the American people will buy Obama channeling Clinton," Ralph Reed writes at The National Review. "But what Obama doesn’t seem to realize is that Clinton’s move to the middle wasn’t just rhetorical, it was substantive. He signed sweeping welfare reform, signed a budget passed by a Republican Congress that reined in spending and cut taxes, and signed a federal death-penalty statute. If Obama doesn’t back up his words with similar deeds ... voters will see his centrist head-fake as political posturing and reward (or more likely punish) him accordingly."
  • Always Wanting Your Money  "Obama's domestic policy is big on 'investments' -- not yours, the government's. That is, spending," Scott Johnson writes at Power Line. " It's a throwback to the vocabulary of the Clinton era. 'The kids' must not be far behind. And there they are. They need more of your dough for their education."
  • Tweaking  "He'll work together with Republicans," Ann Althouse says, "but only if they offer little tweaks to the big overhaul he rammed through, with no consideration for their opinion, when they didn't hold the seats in Congress."

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