President Obama’s State of the Union Has the Feel of a Re-election Launch
President Obama is greeted following his State of the Union address Tuesday night. Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.
President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night was far closer to the launch of a re-election campaign than to a listing of policy prescriptions or a tough love conversation with the American people about the inevitable hard choices that are before us.
In the days leading up to the speech, President Obama’s advisers said he would deliver a thematic speech, not a programmatic one, and it was certainly that.
There was a touch of Oprah in the speech, with the president challenging Americans to build an America that is the best version of itself, which he described as the path to “winning the future.”
After two years of a bruising partisan battle, culminating in a devastating midterm election for the president and his party, Mr. Obama is clearly attempting to regain the piece of his 2008 brand that was all about transcending partisan politics. It was an appeal to which independent voters responded during his race for the White House, and those same voters have been coming back to his fold according to recent polls. This State of the Union address was aimed squarely at keeping them there.
“At stake right now is not who wins the next election — after all, we just had an election,” Obama said. “At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It’s whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It’s whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world.”
In his remarks, President Obama referred to both “Democrats and Republicans” and urged them to work “together” no fewer than 13 times. That’s double the amount of a joint appeal to “Democrats and Republicans” and a push to do things “together” from last year, but who’s counting?
Nowhere in the speech was there talk of abortion, climate change or gun control. Those partisan trip wires have been replaced by innovation, education and infrastructure, all of which are potential areas for bipartisan work. And for the full outreached hand to Republicans, President Obama included corporate tax and medical malpractice reforms on his wish list.
This speech was about “the vision thing,” and President Obama used the opportunity to re-frame and repackage the rationale for his presidency.
Most of the newspaper coverage Wednesday morning seems to be giving the Obama administration their desired headlines. Here’s a small smattering of examples:
The New York Times: “Obama Pitches Global Fight for U.S. Jobs in Address”
“President Obama challenged Americans on Tuesday night to unleash their creative spirit, set aside their partisan differences and come together around a common goal of outcompeting other nations in a rapidly shifting global economy.”
The Washington Post: “State of the Union 2011: ‘Win the future,’ Obama says”
“President Obama sought to rouse the nation from complacency in his State of the Union address Tuesday, urging innovation and budget reforms that he said are vital to keep the United States a leader in an increasingly competitive world.”
“President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address Tuesday to ask the nation to meet the challenges of a global economy, framing what he called a competitiveness agenda that includes traditional Democratic proposals like increased education spending, alongside gestures to Republicans seeking deep budget cuts.”
The Appleton (Wisc.) Post Crescent: “President Obama calls for ‘shared responsibility’ with Republicans during State of the Union address”
“President Barack Obama said Tuesday night that the nation’s challenge of confronting a dramatically changing world is a “shared responsibility” for Democrats and Republicans.”
The New York Post: “‘Budget hawk’ Bam’s $$ plans Jobs push amid crisis”
“President Obama last night recast himself as a budget hawk with his State of the Union Address, calling for a spending freeze and a ban on earmarks — even as he proposed new funding for ‘targeted investments’ to make the United States more economically competitive.”
For more analysis of President Obama’s address, visit our Annotated State of the Union.
THE REPUBLICAN RESPONSE
As the House chamber emptied out following the president’s speech Tuesday night, the spotlight soon shifted to the House Budget Committee hearing room, where its new chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., delivered the official Republican rebuttal.
Rep. Ryan, a leading conservative voice on fiscal matters, acknowledged that the president entered office facing a difficult economic situation, but he contended that his policies have only exacerbated the problem.
“The facts are clear: Since taking office, President Obama has signed into law spending increases of nearly 25 percent for domestic government agencies — an 84 percent increase when you include the failed stimulus. All of this new government spending was sold as ‘investment.’ Yet after two years, the unemployment rate remains above 9 percent and government has added over $3 trillion to our debt,” said Rep. Ryan.
Much like the president’s address, Rep. Ryan’s speech was more focused on vision than policy specifics. Still, the differences were clear. While the president talked up investments in innovation and lauded America for doing “big things,” Rep. Ryan struck a sober tone about the current outlook for the country.
“Our nation is approaching a tipping point,” Rep. Ryan cautioned. “We are at a moment where if government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America’s best century will be considered our past century.”
Whereas Rep. Ryan’s response was measured, his colleague, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, held nothing back in her Tea Party-sponsored rebuttal. Rep. Bachmann sharply criticized what she called the president’s “unprecedented explosion of government spending,” including the economic recovery package. She said Americans risked being forced into government-run health care unless “Obamacare,” the Republicans’ preferred term to describe the health care bill, is fully repealed.
“For two years, President Obama made promises, just like the ones we heard him make this evening, yet still we have high unemployment, devalued housing prices, and the cost of gasoline is skyrocketing,” Rep. Bachmann said.
There was little post-speech reaction from potential 2012 contenders, but one did stop by Statuary Hall in the Capitol to share his thoughts with the PBS NewsHour.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who is considering either a gubernatorial run or a White House bid, praised the president’s nod toward American exceptionalism. “The president reflected on the uniqueness of America. He remembered our soldiers, he remembered where the strength of this nation was,” Rep. Pence said, before adding that he was disappointed that the president appeared to be “committed to more spending and more government and more of the same of what the American people rejected on Election Day last fall.”
You can catch some of the other post-speech reaction from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., on our YouTube channel.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
President Obama plans to take his State of the Union message on the road Wednesday to Wisconsin, a state that he won handily in 2008, but swung significantly for Republicans in last year’s midterm elections.
The president will tour Orion Energy Systems, a company that manufactures energy efficient technology for industrial use, located in Manitowoc, about 40 miles southeast of Green Bay. He also plans to tour aluminum and wind turbine manufacturers, both in Manitowoc as well.
President Obama won 53 percent of the vote in Manitowoc County in 2008, compared to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who received 46 percent. Mr. Obama performed stronger in Wisconsin overall, taking 56 percent of the vote, defeating Sen. McCain by 13 points.
By comparison, Sen. Ron Johnson, a newly-elected Republican, received 58 percent of the vote in Manitowoc County, besting incumbent Russ Feingold there by 17 points.
If the president is going to be on the winning end of the 2012 election, then he’ll need to flip areas like Manitowoc back to the Democratic column.
Indeed, the White House is showing signs it intends to play offense, sending Vice President Joe Biden to Republican territory in Greenfield, Ind., Wednesday. The city, about 20 miles to the east of Indianapolis, sits in Hancock County, which Sen. McCain won by nearly 30 points in 2008.
The vice president will visit Ener1, “a leading manufacturer of advanced lithium-ion battery systems for transportation, grid energy storage and industrial electronics,” according to the Obama administration.
While areas like Greenfield likely remain out of reach for the Democrats, the Obama political operation is hoping to keep Indiana in play despite strong Republican gains there in 2010. That will likely prove to be a very tall order.
Mr. Obama campaigned heavily in Indiana in 2008, becoming the first Democratic candidate to win the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 by edging Sen. McCain by a single percentage point — just 30,000 votes out of more than 2.7 million cast.
For more political coverage, including analysis of the State of the Union address, visit our politics page.