Obama Will Throw Down Political Gauntlet in State of the Union Address

Nate Beeler, The Columbus Dispatch

Don’t look for President Barack Obama to do a State of the Union speech tomorrow night that’ll sound like he’s paling around with Congressional leaders and going to do whatever it takes to accommodate or placate them. According to The Politico, Obama intends to throw down the political gauntlet and go for it — go for his second term agenda:

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech will be less a presidential olive branch than a congressional cattle prod.

Emboldened by electoral victory and convinced the GOP is unwilling to cut deals, Obama plans to use his big prime-time address Tuesday night to issue another broad challenge at a Republican Party he regards as vulnerable and divided, Democrats close to Obama say.

Obama is correct on both. Polls show the Republican Party maybe perhaps be more popular than poison ivy, but not by much. And the divisions and resentments within the Republican Party’s Tea Party and establishment wings bubble more to the surface every day. Meanwhile, the Democrats seem more united than they have in years.

That strategy has its dangers: If Americans perceive Obama as too partisan, he’ll lose a serious share of his personal popularity. Yet he needs to burn political capital — and keep the GOP on the defensive — to force the opposition into accepting more taxes and fewer budget cuts as part of a deal to avert the $1.2 trillion-dollar sequester cuts looming on March 1.

When POLITICO asked how Obama is approaching the speech compared with his previous State of the Union addresses, a person close to the process of drafting the speech replied with a 2,500-year-old quote from Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu:

“Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.”

The anodyne, stage-managed West Wing leaks have the State of the Union speech focusing on “jobs creation,” poll-tested paeans to the “middle class” and a new slate of infrastructure projects that will have a tough time passing Congress. Privately, administration officials see it as an extension of Obama’s unabashedly provocative and progressive Jan. 21 inaugural address, their latest attempt to leverage favorable deals on the sequester and the debt ceiling comparable to the watershed deal Obama secured on increasing taxes on the wealthy.

This is truly a case of Obama trying to use his political capital because a)he knows it will greatly diminish in coming months and, b)he isn’t running for re-election so he can be as blunt as he wishes.

Obama now hopes to use his post-election popularity to force new tax increases and fewer budget cuts on Republicans as part of any deal to avert a $1.2 trillion menu of automatic cuts increasingly likely to kick in on March 1.

“There are a surprising number of Republicans who seem to think that elections don’t matter, who are ready to block widely popular agenda items that the American people voted for in November,” former Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt said, underscoring the elections-have-consequences attitude of the president’s brain trust.

“Change isn’t going to happen behind closed doors — it’ll require continued use of the bully pulpit and the reengagement of the millions of Americans who volunteered for the campaign,” he added.

And, indeed, his impressive election victory, his polls (which have started to sag and return closer to earth), and the demands of his liberal Democratic Party base mean Obama would have bigger problems if he used a Bull Pulpit rather than a Bully Puplit.

And he may have yet another reason to take firmer stand on his agenda goals: the battle in the Republican Party right now is unlikely to find a moderated Republican Party with the establishment largely back in control, writes Ezra Klein. It’s likely go wind up with the establishment back in control of a pre-Tea Party Republican Party — such as pre-George W. Bush:

Dick Morris and Sarah Palin are out at Fox News. Rep. Paul Ryan is helping House Speaker John Boehner talk his caucus down from the debt-ceiling ledge. Sen. Marco Rubio is going from one conservative talk-radio host to another to sell them on bipartisan immigration reform. Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal is telling Republicans to cease being “the stupid party.” Tea Party icon Jim DeMint left the Senate, while FreedomWorks, a Tea Party catalyst, went through a nasty, costly divorce with its figurehead, Dick Armey. Karl Rove’s super-PAC is turning its formidable financial artillery toward helping Republicans win primary elections against Tea Party insurgents.

The Republican establishment is reasserting control. It’s purging some of the hucksters who’d taken the party’s reins — or at least the airtime — in recent years. It’s resisting much of the brinkmanship that marked the last Congress and trying to present a more fearsome, united front against counterproductive strategies favored by the right. All of the major 2016 presidential contenders have made the same political calculation: It’s better to build a reputation as one of the party’s adults than as one of its firebrands.

“We’ve had a period of this movement at the grass-roots level, call it Tea Party or something else, and it seems to me we’re seeing the normal progression of a grass-roots populist movement,” said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota. “It ran out of control for a few years — that’s why we call it a movement rather than an organization. But it’s receding a bit now. That’s allowing natural leaders to reassert themselves, and institutional forces to reassert themselves.”

Just don’t call this process moderation. The Republican Party isn’t reinventing itself so much as reverting to its previous form. There’s little evidence of a rethinking of core Republican policy ideas. There’s no obvious analogue to the Democratic Leadership Council of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was a moderating influence on the Democrats, or even to the “compassionate conservatism” that George W. Bush promoted to the nation in 2000.

The only question is: who will do the equivilent of crying out “YOU LIE!” tomorrow, or walking out of the speech? How glaring will it be as GOPers look sourly and don’t clap? Obama will walk into a room where he is set up by election results, the state of the Republican Party and the Party’s overwhelming image. How can he pass up a chance to assertively lay out his goals with the stage set like this?

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