01.25.11

President Obama Seizes the Center

Channeling Reagan and Clinton, the president set about establishing a tone and a direction for the next two years—restoring America's economic competitiveness writes John Avlon.

“Winning the Future” seemed to be the intended title of Obama’s second State of the Union– but it could have been called “Seizing the Center.”

The speech was structured to answer the president’s critics with odes to the entrepreneurial spirit and the embrace of American exceptionalism. It opened with a recognition of the wisdom of divided government: “Governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all.”

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The speech’s style and substance were influenced by Reagan and Clinton far more than by FDR or LBJ. There were wry attacks on bureaucracy and calls for the federal government to live within its means that echoed Reagan’s first inaugural almost exactly. Bill Clinton’s favorite thematic frame – the macro-economic shift from manufacturing to an information economy – was invoked, with the added urgency of competition with a rising China. This is our " Sputnik moment."

While the president’s delivery sounded flat next to the intensity of the Tucson memorial service speech, that’s a no-win comparison. There was, however, thematic follow-through in the continued drive to the civil center—this time with a policy agenda designed to disarm the opposition.

Read the following paragraphs to a conservative friend as kind of blind political taste test.

• “We have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable. Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.”

• “The best thing we could do on taxes for all Americans is to simplify the individual tax code.”

• “Lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years — without adding to our deficit.”

• “Congress should know this: if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it.”

• “There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different entities that deal with housing policy. Then there's my favorite example: the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked. In the coming months, my administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America.”

The true Nixon-in-China opportunity was forgone in smaller policy specifics that will fail to capture the imagination. It was a lost opportunity.

These are statements that could have come from a President McCain.

Add to that new support for Medical Malpractice Reform, an effort to slash red-tape over-regulation and enact Merit Pay for Teachers and you’ve got significant parts of a center-right policy agenda adopted by this center-left president.

Of course, words are cheap – but the outreach to the right outpaced specific gestures to the left such as reaffirmed support for the DREAM Act. Even a celebratory mention of the end of ‘ Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell’ was partnered with a call for all colleges to let the ROTC on campus (about damn time, too).

The populist nods came in the form of eliminating oil-company subsidies and identifying waste in the Pentagon, but those are proposals that many consistent fiscal conservatives support. Any talk of gun control in the wake of Tucson was held for another day, to liberals’ disappointment.

The much discussed ‘bipartisan date-night’ seating arrangement seemed to be a success. The one-side-of-the-house-against-the-other dueling ovations was muted compared with years past. There were 15 bipartisan applause moments in all. Sure, it was symbolic, but it was a step in the right direction, and I hope it plants the seeds of a new standard for State of the Union addresses.

On the negative side of the ledger, there was no bold grand bargain offered by the president. For all the talk about deficit and the debt, his proposals did not reach to specifics on the biggest issue of entitlement reform – and he took the long-term no-brainer of raising the retirement age off the table. The true Nixon-in-China opportunity was forgone in smaller policy specifics that while individually significant, will fail to capture the imagination. It was a lost opportunity.

Paul Ryan’s official Republican response was responsible and adult with no Kenneth the Pageboy-style embarrassments. He was sincere and direct, focused on dealing with the deficit and the debt, even while setting out a series of principles that extended to everything this side of mom and apple pie.

Michele Bachmann’s self-appointed Tea Party response deserves a longer treatment later. But one line stood out to me, as she even-handedly recounted our recent political history: “Two years ago…We wondered whether the president would cut spending, reduce the deficit and implement real job-creating policies.” I recall that Bachmann was actually wondering whether Barack Obama had ‘ anti-American views” at the time – but hey, it’s almost the same thing.

People have been asking whether the GOP has a Michele Bachmann problem, but I think that misses a larger point – the Tea Party has a Michele Bachmann problem.

Next year, I’d imagine that Dennis Kucinich will demand equal time for a far-left rebuttal of the president. This prospect will be similarly cheered by the White House. The adult-in-the-room strategy only benefits by comparison to the extremes.

“What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow,” as the president said. This was not a classic speech by Obama or State of the Union standards. But it conscientiously set about establishing a tone and a direction for the next two years – restoring America’s economic competitiveness through modest policy outreach. We know from experience that divided government does not have to mean gridlock. Now we’ll see if official Washington recognizes that as well.

State of the Union 2011

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.