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Obama's Centrist Tone Hits Right Note; State of the Union Ratings Soar

4 years ago
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The bar was lower for Barack Obama's State of the Union address because he only recently gave the speech of his life in Tucson -- and in the aftermath of that tragedy, no one in the chamber was going to so much as whisper, "You fib.''

The proof? Early reviews suggest that his calls for unity, "steady as she goes" affect and soothing, recycled rhetoric suited the moment; an online CBS News Poll of speech watchers found that a whopping 92 percent approved of his proposals, and 81 percent of those who watched said they now approve of the Obama's economic plans, up significantly from 54 percent before the speech. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey indicated that 84 percent of those who watched had a positive response.

Yes, the speech was laudable without ever making me want to cheer; it neither soared nor stumbled, while reminding us that everyone needs an editor. But it did succeed in presenting the president as the centrist he is, picking up on some Republican ideas while giving what in long stretches sounded like a U.S. Chamber of Commerce speech encouraging major investment in clean technology.

I might have been set up for a bit of a disappointment when White House spokesman Robert Gibbs promised that this speech would not be the usual laundry list of hopes and dreams; in a long middle section, that's exactly what it was.

But it was not the "theme-less pudding of presidential prose" that my colleague Walter Shapiro said most SOTUs turn into, either; it did have a theme, which was that the only way to grow jobs is to invest in education, infrastructure and research. And it did have a consistent tone, which was bipartisan throughout. As a result, at an important moment, he's made it at least a little trickier for Republicans to turn him down.

Of course he began by saying he and others were "mindful of the empty chair in this chamber, and pray for the health of our colleague – and our friend – Gabby Giffords.''

And he was at his most effective when he argued that the Tucson tragedy really had brought Congress and the country together: "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 a part of something greater –- something more consequential than party or political preference.''

But even with Republicans and Democrats seated together for a change and on their best, first-date behavior, "What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow. . . . New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all -- for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics."

My vote for most disingenuous line of the night is this one: "At stake right now is not who wins the next election -- after all, we just had an election.'' (Not only has the Republican congressional leadership declared that its top priority is making sure Obama is not re-elected, but his team is of course busy ramping up for '12, too.)

With a 55 percent approval rating, the public seems to agree that the economy is getting better: "Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again."

Suddenly, he sounded like the CEO Republicans are always saying we need in the Oval Office when he claimed that "to win the future, we'll need to take on challenges that have been decades in the making.''

Not to shame us into action or anything, but with countries like China and India investing everything they have in education, research and new technologies, "China became home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer.''

Perhaps in part to answer those who doubt Obama even believes in American exceptionalism, he spoke about it at length, calling the United States "the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea -- the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny.'' Later, he said that "as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth."

In a speech long on can-do and short on specifics, he asked us to think back 50 years to "when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon. The science wasn't there yet. NASA didn't even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation's Sputnik moment.''

Given that our space program is no longer deemed necessary, much less exciting, by much of the public, and that NASA's budget is temporarily frozen through March, the whole "Sputnik" metaphor seemed iffy -- and it was not an applause line.

Nor was his line that to fund clean energy technology, "I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own.''

One specific he did mention was a goal that by 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity would come from clean energy. Then he spoke at length about education reform and parental responsibility -- and suggested that Republican efforts to cut education spending would be the real job killers.

He also made the economic case for immigration reform, speaking of the "hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.''

Among his infrastructure goals are getting 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail and, in the next five years, high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of Americans.

During the "laundry list" portion of the program, he proposed closing loopholes in the tax code that could -- here comes a reason for Republican glee -- "lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years – without adding to our deficit."

I wouldn't really call it a laugh line, but one of the few smile lines of the 61-minute address was this: "Now, I've heard rumors that a few of you have some concerns about the new health care law.'' Then, after issuing an invitation to essentially refight the last war, he said, "Let's fix what needs fixing and move forward," as if that were an easy matter.

He also proposed a partial freeze on non-military domestic spending for the next five years -- enough to reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next 10 years, but not enough to win over Republicans, who immediately responded that it was nowhere near enough.

Throughout the speech, he made clear he is open to compromise and deeper cuts, but did draw some lines, as when he said, "Let's make sure that we're not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.''

And not for the first time, he mentioned he's willing to look at medical malpractice reform, which drew enthusiastic cheering from Republicans -- right before he sobered them up by saying, "We simply cannot afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Before we take money away from our schools, or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break. It's not a matter of punishing their success. It's about promoting America's success.''

There were many more mentions of ways he'd like to reach out across the aisle -- by simplifying the tax code, streamlining government, and promising to veto any bill containing earmarks.

Ending the speech as he began it, with an appeal to unity, he said, "Our troops come from every corner of this country -- they are black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American. They are Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And, yes, we know that some of them are gay. Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.'' Then he pivoted again and said that, as conservatives have long urged, "I call on all of our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past."

The American Dream, he said, is what makes it possible for three self-made working class kids -- he and Joe Biden and John Boehner -- to lead the United States of America. It's "why I can stand here before you tonight. That dream is why a working class kid from Scranton can stand behind me. That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father's Cincinnati bar can preside as speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth.'' (And no, John Boehner didn't cry, though it was the sweetest moment of the night.)

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