Obama Calls for Unity in Moving Forward in State of the Union

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Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

President Obama delivers his State of the Union address, Jan. 25, 2011

Nearly three months into his presidency, Barack Obama gave a speech at Georgetown University outlining his vision for his Administration. The title, "New Foundation," wasn't too catchy, and Obama began his talk by warning that "this is going to be prose and not poetry." But it provided a coherent theory of the case: Obama-ism was about laying the long-term groundwork for the economy of the future. For several weeks, Obama kept dropping "new foundation" into his remarks — about health care, education, even consumer protection. One aide thought about launching a New Foundation website to make the phrase synonymous with the Obama brand.

It never happened. "We got busy," the aide recalls. The Administration's focus shifted. The message drifted. The economy sputtered. Voters punished the President and his party last November.

Now the new foundation is back. Not the slogan, but the notion. A few details have changed. The "five pillars" that Obama unveiled in April 2009 did not include corporate tax cuts, regulatory reform or malpractice reform — all cherished Republican ideas that he floated in his State of the Union, implicitly acknowledging the new political realities. And this speech did not dwell so long on financial reform or health reform, both bygone partisan achievements that he'd rather not relitigate and yet another acknowledgment of the new balance of power.

Still, Obama's formula last night for "Winning the Future" was basically a revival of his original new foundation: innovation, education, clean energy and infrastructure, eventually followed by deficit reduction. In fact, almost all of his policy proposals involved expanding or extending big-ticket items from the $787 billion stimulus package enacted during his first month in office: his Race to the Top education program, his $2,500-a-year tuition tax credit, his high-speed rail program, his broadband initiatives and his aggressive push to promote green energy and green manufacturing. He even gave a shout-out to the supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which became the fastest in the world after it received a $20 million stimulus-funded upgrade — and before it was overtaken by a supercomputer in China.

Obama mentioned that one too. His speech was also about competitiveness, and he made it clear that where the U.S. is falling behind its rivals is in research, education and transportation. But his emphasis was really on us, not us against them.

That was also his political emphasis. He repeatedly called for common ground, offering to correct a provision in his health reforms that could inundate small businesses with paperwork, proposing a five-year freeze in domestic spending, promising to veto any bill with earmarks, and calling for a reorganization of a government that puts salmon under the jurisdiction of one agency when they're in freshwater and another agency when they're in saltwater. "It gets even more complicated when they're smoked," he quipped. Obama did emphasize his commitment to vulnerable citizens, to health reform and to eliminating subsidies for the oil industry. But he's got a knack for making progressive ideas sound moderate, reasonable and uncontroversial, which is one reason he drives his ideological adversaries crazy. Who would want to pull the engine out of an airplane to lighten its load?

"I continue to agree with 80% of what the President says, but disagree with 80% of what he actually does," groused Republican Congressman Jeb Hensarling, a leader of House conservatives, in a statement after the speech.

Last night's Republican message — in the official response by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan and the rapid responses from his colleagues — was that Obama is simply doubling down on Big Government, that investment is just a fancy way of saying spending, that Democrats don't care about the $14 trillion national debt. The phrase "failed stimulus" came up a lot. At times in his presidency, most elaborately in the "New Foundation" speech, Obama has challenged these attacks, explaining how the deficit exploded before he reached the White House, how GOP tax cuts created far more debt than the stimulus ever did, how joblessness and the deficit would both be much worse without that "failed stimulus." Last night, he didn't really bother.

Apparently, Obama has moved past the debates of last year. Politically, at least, he lost them. He isn't renouncing any of his core beliefs or legislative accomplishments, but he isn't asking for a rematch, either.

This rope-a-dope is sure to frustrate progressives who are still spoiling for a fight. They're angry about Obama's recent compromise to extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich, and they don't understand why he's so solicitous of opponents who have opposed all his initiatives in lockstep, who seem to define bipartisanship as Democrats doing their bidding.

But Obama's approval ratings have been rising ever since he acknowledged his "shellacking" in November. He keeps signaling to the public that he's reaching out to Republicans, even though he's still pushing policies they've been denouncing for two years. It wasn't his choice to swim upstream — the midterm voters made that call — but evidently he's got something in common with those salmon. He gets even more complicated when he's been smoked.