Obama's SOTU: Winning the Next 9 Months

In a feisty speech, Obama pitched a patriotic, quasi-populist, OWSish progressivism to set up his 2012 reelection campaign.

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 6:02 PM EST

Pete Souza/The White House/ZumaPete Souza/The White House/ZumaJump to all the best tweets of the debate, as it unfolded in real-time, by the MoJo news team and other political junkies.

A year ago, President Barack Obama, in his second State of the Union address, spoke in lofty terms about how to "win the future." Tonight, his third annual report to Congress was more about winning the next nine months. That's how much time Obama has left to persuade voters that his vision for the coming years is better than that of the Republicans—and that he has a way to get there.

With this speech, Obama forcefully presented a view of the nation and the tasks at hand that positioned him as a can-do, patriotic, forward-looking optimist against obstructionist Republicans with a dark take on the nation's prospects. He pitched government policies that would bolster middle-class security: job-training programs, tax credits for college tuition and repatriating jobs to the United States, mortgage refinancing, research-and-development spending, and measures to boost domestic manufacturing. "Take the money we're no longer spending at war," he declared, "use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home."

Obama took up the call of the Occupy Wall Street movement, decrying unfair tax breaks for millionaires. He adopted a modified version of the OWS 1-vs.-99-percent message: "If you're earning a million dollars a year, you shouldn't get special tax subsidies or deductions. On the other hand, if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98 percent of American families, your taxes shouldn’t go up. You're the ones struggling with rising costs and stagnant wages. You're the ones who need relief."

And he countered the typical GOP retort: "You can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense. " (The camera turned to Warren Buffett's secretary, who was sitting next to First Lady Michelle Obama.)

The president denounced Wall Street pirates and announced a new Financial Crimes Unit. His language could have come off a cardboard sign in Zuccotti Park: "We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules."

He offered a calm and rage-free type of populism: "Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else—like education and medical research, a strong military, and care for our veterans? Because if we’re serious about paying down our debt, we can't do both."

The president was assertive in challenging the Republicans, without being combative. He didn't yield an inch on his core initiatives—defending health care reform and doubling-down on supporting clean energy programs. This speech reflected his strategists' belief that he can juice up both his progressive base and independent voters by fighting for centrist programs (or what used to be centrist programs) with a progressive bent.

In the past year, Obama has moved from a compromiser-in-chief looking to cut deals with the Republicans (to avoid such negative consequences as the end of the Bush tax cuts for middle-income earners, a government shutdown, and a default of on US government debt) to a semipopulist battler for the middle class who is eager to defy Republicans over issues of economic fairness and the role of government. Once the president was free of the debt ceiling tar pit—and the Republicans were no longer holding the economy hostage—he launched a campaign for a jobs bill that emphasized confrontation, not negotiation. He and his aides had concluded that few, if any, worthwhile deals could be reached with House Speaker John Boehner, who was essentially held captive by the tea party wing of his party.

Consequently, Obama could leave behind the failed attempt to reach a grand bargain on deficit reduction and initiate a grand debate over national values.

Due to this shift, the 2012 race is shaping up as a titanic face-off between a president who advocates using government to bolster the economy and address inequities and Republicans who have one answer to everything: Smother government and let the markets run free. In his speech, Obama called for "great projects." Republicans call for no projects—that is, nothing outside the private sector. This is a damn clear contrast.

Compared to GOP Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels' less-than-inspiring rebuttal, Obama was full of vigor and vision. Daniels hit all the Republican talking points: class warfare, freedom, markets, and lightbulbs. (You had to be there.) But it was a flat same-old, same-old response that seemed cast for committed Republican, not independent voters. His was a dour message—freedom is under assault. Obama aims to rouse.

This State of the Union—Obama's best so far—won't move the needle (as politicos like to say) in Washington. The president's calls for bipartisan cooperation, for reforming the easy-to-abuse rules of the Senate, for campaign finance reform, and for lowering the heated rhetoric will not be heeded. But he demonstrated that when it comes to concocting a political messaging—and tethering it to his past achievements and current proposals—he can be masterful. (This raises the question: Why hasn't he done this consistently from the get-go?)

The big ending of the speech turned to the Osama bin Laden mission. Obama did not cite this success as a reply to GOP charges that he's an appeasing wuss. Instead, he used it like a national-security version of an Amish barn-raising—defining the American story as one of communal action: We're not individual actors being bounced around by market forces; we band together for the greater good. It's worth a read:

One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn't matter. Just like it didn't matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates, a man who was George Bush's defense secretary, and Hillary Clinton, a woman who ran against me for president.

All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn't deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job—the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other—because you can't charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there's someone behind you, watching your back.

And that is why the nation must decide to use its collective wealth (via taxation) to work together (via prudent and fiscally responsible government programs that invest in the future and protect the citizenry) for the betterment of the entire nation.

Obama is pitching a patriotic, quasi-populist progressivism (while conceding the need for deficit reduction and government cost efficiencies). Before he can win the future, he's going to have to sell this message. And this speech was an effective kickoff for that campaign.

 


And that's the speech. One hour and five minutes long. Assertive but not angry.

Down the stretch we come:

On taxes and income inequality:

Highlights so far:

Our reporter Kate Sheppard weighs in on the energy section of the speech:

GOP reactions thus far:

The president takes on companies that send jobs overseas:

Biden watch:

And we're off:

Pre-game warmups:

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