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President Barack Obama reached back into the past in a State of the Union address that was all about winning the future.
He meant victory for America. And, perhaps, himself, too.
In style and substance, Obama resurrected themes from his groundbreaking 2008 campaign as he started making the case for his next one.
With the world watching, Obama cast himself anew as a post-partisan, pragmatic, reasonable, solutions-oriented leader focused on protecting the American dream and ensuring the country’s dominance. He spoke directly to the fears of Americans everywhere that their county is in decline. And he issued a call to greatness while sketching out a long-term vision for how the nation can achieve it.
“We do big things,” Obama said, delivering an optimistic pitch that spoke to the country’s can-do spirit.
Sound familiar? It should.
Unlike candidate Obama of 2008, though, he’s no clean slate offering gauzy promises of change to Americans looking for a leader to right the country.
He’s the president. With a two-year record that divides the public. And a stubbornly high unemployment rate. Who must work with the reinforced ranks of Republicans in Congress. And convince the polarized country — including skeptical independents who wield huge power in presidential elections — that the change he wrought is sound.
Ultimately, he must convince the nation that he should get four more years at the helm.
Obama is clearly aware of his new reality, given the speech he delivered. He spoke to what unites, instead of divides, Americans.
There were few sharply ideological pitches. There was little partisanship. And for all the talk about economic revival for years to come, there wasn’t much talk about how to address the country’s most immediate concern: reducing the 9.4 percent jobless rate and stoking a sluggish recovery.
This was much bigger than the here and now. Obama set a much loftier goal: rebuilding people’s faith in government.
Republicans bashed him for it.
Such criticism aside, Tuesday night’s address laid bare Obama’s desire to channel the above-it-all persona with which he captured a broad coalition of voters who vaulted him to the White House. He’s spent the months since the November elections overhauling his presidency as he adjusts to an era of divided government in Washington and prepares to run for re-election.
Polls show that the effort has paid dividends: His job-performance rating stands at 53 percent in the most recent Associated Press-GfK poll and at 51 percent among independents. Still, just 30 percent of independents score his presidency above average or better, down from a year ago. And they divide about evenly on whether he deserves to be re-elected.
It’s little wonder that Obama, from the start of his address, struck an above-the-fray posture and called for bipartisan solutions to the nation’s ills as he referenced the shooting in Arizona, the tragedy that has helped unite the country.
“Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is part of something greater — something more consequential than party or political preference,” he said. “We are part of the American family.”
At nearly every turn, the president called for Republicans and Democrats to work together to tackle “challenges decades in the making.” Like fixing the immigration system. Making 80 percent of the country’s electricity come from clean energy sources by 2035. Simplifying the tax system. And strengthening Social Security.
He also repeatedly extended a hand to the GOP, entertaining their ideas on issues like medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits. But he didn’t budge on his refusal to permanently lower taxes on the top 2 percent of U.S. earners, showing that his effort to compromise has limits.
None of it sat well with Obama’s liberal base. The president is gambling that the left eventually will fall in line behind him. It’s a safe bet: He faces no serious primary challenger and still is hugely popular among his core backers, despite grumbling.
Obama’s conciliatory posture offered a sharp contrast to the past two years, in which he leveraged huge Democratic majorities in Congress to pass sweeping legislation with virtually no Republican support. The GOP, for its part, stood in near lockstep against Obama at every turn.
But Republicans were the ones who benefited in November, when voters decided they’d had enough of Democrats controlling all the levers of power in Washington.
Obama was quick to remind Republicans that they, too, will be held accountable for the successes or failures of the next two years.
Despite uneasiness about the scope of government spending at a time of budget-busting deficits, Obama called for huge investments to spur innovation, education and infrastructure. They met immediate resistance from Republicans, who cast him as a tax-and-spend liberal even before he delivered the speech. House Republicans went on record to return most domestic agencies to 2008 budget levels.
“This is our Sputnik moment,” said an undeterred Obama. “The future is ours to win but to get there we cannot stand still.”
Previewing his likely re-election pitch and addressing top concerns of Americans, he made the case that the country is on the right course but that more must be done by both sides to make the nation competitive.
“At stake right now is not who wins the next election,” Obama insisted.
Even as he started making the case that he should be the one.
Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press