01.25.11

Obama Tries Out Bill Clinton's Message

Facing a Republican majority, the president had to drop his campaign-era themes for this State of the Union and pick up Clinton's—talking about "winning the future" to underscore his energy and youth. And it worked.

It was a Clintonesque speech, and I mean that in a good way. In 2008, Obama had two winning rhetorical tropes. The first, aimed at liberals, was his promise of a new 1960s, an era of grand, government-led campaigns for social justice. The second, aimed at independents, was his promise to bring Americans together and end the culture war.

With Republicans now ruling Congress, both those messages are tapped out. There will be no more Great Society-style expansions of the American welfare state and Americans will not come together in a post-’60s Democratic majority, at least not anytime soon. So in his State of the Union address, Obama discarded those themes and picked up Clinton’s. What Clinton was good at talking about—in the age before terrorism and financial meltdown—was globalization. He had a knack for explaining the seismic shifts in technology and global capitalism that were causing scaring ordinary Americans, and for making them feel that he would use government to help them survive—while the Republicans would leave them to the tender mercies of a Darwinian global marketplace. Clinton made laissez-faire economics seem not merely heartless, but anachronistic.

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That’s what Obama did on Tuesday night. While Republicans say government spending is bankrupting the nation and threatening our liberty, Obama made government spending sound non-ideological, even pro-business. He scared Americans about China, but in so doing reminded them that the nations whose economic dynamism we fear are gaining on us not by starving the state, but by harnessing it. And he talked constantly about combining government investment and personal responsibility to “win the future.” It was all very reminiscent of Clinton’s 1996 campaign theme, “building a bridge to the 21st century,” designed to highlight Clinton’s relative youth against Bob Dole. And I suspect that Obama is resurrecting it, in part, for the same reason, to underscore his energy and youth, which helped him beat both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, and which remains attractive to a nation that feels itself aging historically.

By focusing on innovation, education, and economic growth, he’s making himself seem non-ideological, a good strategy when you’re facing a Congress filled with Rand Pauls and Michele Bachmanns.

One of the reasons Clinton’s message worked, of course, is that in the mid-1990s the U.S. economy started to boom. That allowed Clinton to reduce the deficit without massive cuts, and it made his soothing rhetoric about the global economy more credible. It’s impossible to know if Obama will have anything like that good fortune, but he’s offering a storyline that will help him capitalize on it if he does. And by focusing on innovation, education, and economic growth, he’s making himself seem non-ideological, which is a good strategy when you’re facing a Congress filled with Rand Pauls and Michele Bachmanns. Judging by Tuesday night, I’d say Obama 2.0 is off to a pretty good start.

State of the Union 2011

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.