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

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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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421 Comments

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dwilsonfl

More of the same dribble,he has been forced to this centrist rhetoric for survival. He is without a doubt a liberal. The energy plans he is talking about would take a very long time to implement,time we don't have. Allow the drilling into the vast suppliies of crude oil in the western U.S. as well as Alaska. Stop the enviromentalist that are impedeing the solution to America's energy crisis.
One more time, the deficit rose and ou econmy began to tank under the democratci controlled senate and congress during Bush'last 2 years in office.The collapse of the Fanny and Freddy came under democratic leadership (Barney, Reed and others}

February 02 2011 at 8:53 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
lanetta

Thank you President Obama and the loyal Americans who have stayed the course. The Dow is going up, GDP is improving, and your plan for Moving America Foward is working! Great speech! Republicans are looking ridiculous with their focus everywhere but on the people and jobs.

February 02 2011 at 8:41 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
gwc54

I admit I only caught the first three minutes of President Obama's speach because in those first few minutes it sounded like more of the same. All problems, no solutions, and it's Bush's fault. I decided at that moment he could not possibly have anything constructive to say.

February 01 2011 at 8:35 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
AZ Stang

Now that Republicans control the House, he's talking about creating jobs and working together...

January 30 2011 at 8:34 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

How many speeches does it take for a president to fool the gullible??? Over 905 and counting..............

January 29 2011 at 3:25 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply
scottweiss8

Another campaign speach, all talk no substance.

January 29 2011 at 3:05 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply
joe

I hope the polls referenced by this article are wrong because I cannot understand how 81% of the people approve of Obama's economic plan when it would take 20 years or more to determine if they worked or failed. Green energy, high speed rail, and other of the plans seem like wishful thinking and not a real plan to create jobs. I hope the American People are smarter than that.

January 27 2011 at 11:54 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to joe's comment
cheshamfox

Economic growth and success does not come over night and so what if his policies take a while to suceed that doesn't mean they won't work. The economy failed because of sort-terms quick fixes, I salute anyone in either party who is looking not just to please in the short term but in the long term as well.

January 28 2011 at 8:27 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
rann948

LOL. Beware! Obama is back on the campaign bus. Some are suggesting that he is becoming more like Reagan. Sure, they are both "cators". Reagan was the great "communicator", Obama is the "great prevaricator".

January 27 2011 at 2:20 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply
yankeefan0012

To all who are also concerned with the lack of "how to" and abundance of "can do" in Obama’s speech, as I was, this is something you must realize. Obama doesn't know the solution to the problems facing us today. Saying that, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have the solution to the problems either. The solution can’t be 100 percent Republican or 100 percent Democrat. In both cases it will turn out to be detrimental to the American people. We need to look at the solutions from both perspectives and forget party lines, compromising on key issues. Just as the bicameral congress is in place to prevent extreme legislation, so too will true bipartisan efforts. Not efforts where the bills are warped to conform to each parties agenda, but politicians that are willing to forget party lines, and vote solely for the PEOPLE . There aren't many that are willing to do this, especially when the President leads by example, in pressuring his fellow party members to vote partisan as Obama did with the Healthcare Bill. But it is imperative that this happens and a new breed of nonpartisan politicians is to be formed if we ever want a long lasting solution for the people.

We must look to our past to find the solution for both the present and future. In the formation of America's founding documents there was a variety of people, most of whom were Christians, but nevertheless, many of whom had conflicting views on the role and execution of Government. Regardless, they all compromised for the common good of the people, producing documents made with the people’s best interest in mind. Those documents speak for themselves when examining them and what they had produced leading up to the last 60 years, until we began to neglect the basic principles that they represent. We need to revert back to what we have neglected in order to stop this regression that has occurred in American politics; by embracing those principles embedded the Deceleration of Independence and the Constitution, and ultimately restoring what has made America truly special over the past 244 years.

Through this revitalized outlook on politics in America we can create legislation that fully benefits the American people. An outlook that combines a nonpartisan view, one where congressional votes will not be skewed by partisan party agenda, as well as a revitalized view of the constitution and the importance of embracing the principles that resides within. Ideally these are the characteristics that our representatives should posses, but nothing in the world is "ideal". Currently I do not know any politicians that embody what I have just described, which is disappointing, but at the same time offers hope for what politicians of the future may embrace.

That’s just my two cents on what I feel should be embraced in a very basic overview. Now the question is, "What do you think of what I have written?"

January 27 2011 at 11:43 AM Report abuse -7 rate up rate down Reply
jbluhm1951

Notice who the President wants to emulate and you will understand his socialist leanings. He is liberal, and he believes goverment is the answer to everything, and a government that can spend more in one year than all the other administrations going back as far back as Washingtion, is good for the country, but he wants to spend even more. We are never going to balance the budget until we get an American in the White House who believes in the private sector, private meaning not owned or ran by the government, and encourages the private sector, instead of attacking it.

China's people have few rights, and their leader is a dictator. We should not try to be like China, but China fosters the ideas that our President learned from all his heros over the years. Our President is driving our country to become a third world power. We cannot spend our way to prosperity. The government must cut spending now because our future depends on getting a handle on spending.

January 26 2011 at 10:21 PM Report abuse +17 rate up rate down Reply

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