In a presidential election year, the State of the Union address is inevitably political and electoral. The question is worth asking, though: Was this a speech about the state of Obama or of the state of the Union?
I would venture that it had a lot more to do with Obama and his upcoming campaign than it did with the U.S., largely because Obama will not get a free ride to a second term. The economy, while improving, is still sluggish and susceptible to external events, such as those in Europe. Obama’s approval rating is hovering around 45 per cent and the mood about the direction of the country remains generally morose. Polls pitting Obama against a generic Republican candidate show the president to be vulnerable. Fortunately for him, he scores better against the actual Republican field than against a hypothetical candidate.
The speech he delivered hinted at how the issues will be framed in November 2012. For most of 2011, Republicans and the Tea Party defined the political landscape. It was all about the huge debt and unsustainable deficits. It was also about how Obama’s policies were slowing down the recovery, and calling into question the American Dream. But then Occupy Wall Street emerged and the Republican race took off in many different directions. Unemployment, income security, income inequality, and economic fairness soon came to the forefront, with the growing gap between the 1 per cent and the middle class emerging as the dominant focus. As a result, Obama began a resurgence of his own.
Yesterday’s speech was about economic fairness, charting a course for greater energy independence, economic revival, improved education, and continued affirmation of American leadership in the world. In this regard, Obama presented a stark contrast between his vision and that of his Republican opponents as heard in recent debates in South Carolina and Florida.
Obama advisor David Plouffe recently repeated the oft-used mantra of “not comparing Obama to the Almighty, just compare him to the alternative.” And during the State of the Union, it was clear that Obama has his mojo back. He remains a formidable campaigner. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is having to deal with the perception that he is part of the 1 per cent—and, moreover, that he paid less than 15 per cent in taxes on millions of revenue based on investment. In fact, Romney has been running for president since 2006 without holding a job. Yesterday, Obama defined Romney more than he defined himself.
So we see the stakes emerging: will the Republicans succeed in making this a referendum on Obama and the state of the economy? Or, will Obama succeed in reminding Americans—especially independent voters—that Republican policies were largely responsible for the mess he inherited, and his vision is the better course for the future? Whoever imposes his point of view will win in November 2012.