Obama’s State of the Union: An Optimistic President Talks to a Pessimistic Nation

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President Barack Obama arrives for his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress Jan. 24, 2012 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Bristling with optimism and a can-do pep, President Obama asked for his pessimistic nation’s attention on Tuesday night to announce he would not stand the naysayers any longer. “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” he said from the biggest lectern in the land on Tuesday night, during his annual State of the Union Address.

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It was a startlingly blunt statement, even for a speech invariably laced with optimistic bromides. Polls throughout 2011 showed that huge majorities of the American people had come to the opposite conclusion; more than 2 out of every 3 voters in one October survey saw the country in decline. Yet the President was not willing to let this stand. He came out swinging, with positive data, happy anecdotes and an energy that he rarely displays these days when he’s off the campaign trail.

“The state of our union is getting stronger,” he said, sounding like a football coach after a tough home loss. “We’ve come too far to turn back now.” In the face of national dissatisfaction, he focused on the silver lining: The killing of Osama bin Laden, the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, the resurrection of the American auto industry. He even promised things he could never deliver, like a return to uninterrupted American labor dominance in a globalized world. “If the playing field is level, I promise you: America will always win,” he said.

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As a piece of performance, it was uplifting. But the performance only went so far, given his audience. The President offered more than a dozen new proposals, from more money for infrastructure repairs, to increased investments in alternative energy, to corporate tax reforms and new limits on tuition increases. He spoke of the American spirit after World War II, and told the stories of two unemployed workers who had found new careers. But few of his legislative proposals had any hope of serious consideration in Congress, let alone passage in this election year.

A year ago, during the same address before the same body of lawmakers, Obama announced plans to spend the year “winning the future.” The months that followed were mostly characterized by loss, with economic troubles at home and abroad, new depths of legislative dysfunction, and a political climate that surprised even the most hardened cynics.

The residue of this funk set the scene Tuesday, as Republicans and Democrats scattered through the room failed more often than not to rise in applause with unity. As Obama spoke, House Speaker John Boehner looked on respectfully behind him, while his staff bombarded reporters with e-mail press releases that effectively accused the President of misleading the American people while embracing “a political gimmick.”

Almost as soon as Obama had finished speaking, the Republican National Committee released a video called “Familiar Rhetoric, Failed Record” that highlighted nearly identical language in the 2011 and 2012 speeches. Afterwards, Utah Senator Mike Lee, one of the Republican freshmen, said he felt the President was trying to divide the nation and belittle its residents. “He’s insulting the American people,” Lee said. “He’s saying, ‘I’m going to do everything for you because you obviously can’t do anything for yourselves.'”

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If the speech has any lasting impact, it will likely be political. Between the exhortations of American greatness, the President laid out the central argument of his re-election campaign, a twist on Harry Truman’s 1949 appeal for fairness. “We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules,” Obama said.

Some of those different rules, he later explained, had to do with taxation. He called for eliminating certain deductions for those making more than $1 million, and for a new minimum tax on the same group, a change in the law that would directly impact his biggest primary rival, Mitt Romney, who pays a low percentage of his income in taxes because it comes from investment gains. Under Obama’s new proposal, anyone making more than $1 million a year would have to pay at least 30% of the gross income in federal taxes. This proposal, as well, is essentially dead on arrival in Congress.

At one point, Obama seemed to directly address Romney’s charge that the White House encourages class envy. “When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich,” Obama said. “It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference – like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet.  That’s not right.”

In other ways, Obama seemed to claim the rhetoric of Republicans as his own. Just as “winning the future” had been the title of a Newt Gingrich book, Obama proposed an “all of the above” energy strategy, stealing a campaign line from Texas governor Rick Perry. He spoke of “nation building right here at home,” a line that had become a standard feature of Jon Huntsman’s stump speech. Both Huntsman and Perry have since bowed out of the Republican race.

Obama, by contrast, is just beginning to publicly engage in his re-election campaign. He has settled on his optimistic message. Now he must hope that circumstances improve enough that the American people are ready to hear it.

Additional reporting by Katy Steinmetz

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