By MARK PENN
Published January 23, 2011
In his State of the Union, President Obama has the opportunity, and even mission, to articulate the new direction he has taken in his presidency since the shellacking in the 2010 midterm elections. There is no doubt that he has radically changed course by backing the Bush tax cuts, sending olive branches to big business and reshuffling his team.
But so far, the public has had to read the tea leaves on what he is really thinking and where he wants to take the country. And when it comes to fixing the economy, he has completely lacked any coherence, veering from bailouts of Wall Street to sharp condemnations.
In 1996, former President Bill Clinton was as clear as a bell, declaring that the “era of big government is over,” but this did not mean a return to fending for yourself for those in need. He went back to his New Democratic philosophy of opportunity, responsibility and community, backing a balanced budget that, at the same time, would preserve entitlements.
The best I can make of the Obama retooling is that it will be based on something less coherent but potentially just as potent — a revised economic philosophy that is based more on private sector renewal while holding firm to liberal views on social issues like choice, gay rights and stem cell research. Politically, he will leave the radical right Christian coalition behind while seeking to attract moderates who reject the Republicans on social issues but have been attracted to lower taxes, smaller government and toughness on national security.
This is potentially very successful for him – because it both splits the Republican Party and keeps together much of the Obama 2008 base, which is made up of better educated, upper-income voters who are fine with gay marriage as long as their taxes are kept low.
Last year, the President used his State of the Union speech to launch into the breach, telling Democrats to stand their ground, calling Republicans the “party of no” and basically suggesting that the assembled Supreme Court justices sitting at his feet had turned a blind eye to the need to get corporate money out politics.
This year we can expect something quite different – a tribute to working together to pass a tax compromise, a desire to put aside politics to make progress and an emphasis on putting people back to work. Last year, he was Superman; this year, he will strive to be the super statesman.