President Barack Obama had been readying himself for Tuesday night’s State of the Union address since the Nov. 2 election, the electorate’s repudiation of big government and big spending. Obama had to respond to what he admitted was a “shellacking.” So he agreed to extend President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, recruited centrist Democrat William Daley of Chicago as his chief of staff and, on Friday, named General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt as his top economic adviser outside the government.
You knew from the anguished keening on the left that Obama was tacking right. Tuesday night, he moved another few degrees. His message was calibrated in homage to not one but two elections ― his party’s 2010 debacle and his request for re-election in 2012. As the president and his advisers well know, the Iowa presidential precinct caucuses are scheduled for Feb. 6, 2012 ― only 376 days off.
His speech turned on a nuanced pivot point that, depending on where you sit, was prescient wisdom or transparent public relations: Obama acknowledged the disdain of many Americans for the rapid growth of spending on his watch by calling for reductions to a federal deficit that, this year, is expected to again reach $1.3 trillion. But he also called for more spending in areas popular with his political base. That notion didn’t amuse House Republicans, who instead want to drop most federal spending to 2008 levels.
Watching Obama speak, we recalled with a smile Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s quip on “Fox News Sunday”: “With all due respect to our Democratic friends, any time they want to spend, they call it investment, so I think you will hear the president talk about investing a lot Tuesday night.” Sure enough, Obama’s remarks included 13 variations on “invest” ― plus nine variations on “compete.” That’s Obama’s rationale for more spending in education and infrastructure: He says he wants to invest to make the U.S. more competitive with China and other rising economies.
It’s hard to pass judgment on Obama’s broad-brush plans in this realm until we see his numbers, due with his budget proposal Feb. 15. He would have a stronger case with the independent voters who administered that November shellacking if spending during the first half of his term had driven down the jobless rate. Obama’s message of frugality clearly was aimed at employers who fear health care and other cost increases and have put off hiring.
If you stuck around after the president’s speech to hear the Republican response from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, then you know that, on Tuesday night, an epic battle was joined. The struggle to sustain federal spending (as many Democrats want) or to slash it (as newly elected Republicans have sworn to do) likely will be the deep national divide of 2011, as it was in 2010. Obama’s emphasis Tuesday night on “investment” and “competition” marks his party’s turf. The retort from Republicans ― those are sweet ideas, but we’re broke ― is calculated to remind voters that any new dollar spent is yet another dollar borrowed.
State of the Union night is always the president’s. Obama used the opportunity to project a more pragmatic, less liberal visage than he did on the same national stage a year earlier. This time, he needed to sound less like the man from the government who’s here to help, and he did.