Published January 24, 2012
State of the Union Key to Obama Election Re-Branding; Mitt Romney: Attack Scone
Meet Obama 2.0
“Agree,” “Disagree” and “Let’s Discuss”
-- The multiple-choice options commonly given to President Obama to mark at the end of policy memos, including those making recommendations on the largest issues, according to the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza.
President Obama retakes center stage tonight with his third State of the Union address, his sixth speech to a joint session of Congress in three years.
And while he and his campaign team are taking evident delight in the national fascination with the Republican presidential nomination demolition derby, this is the president’s chance to reinsert himself into the discussion.
Remember, the only thing worse for a president than unpopularity is irrelevance, and Obama is hoping that he can cast himself tonight as the problem-solving executive on a plane above the personal squabbles of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
Obama has been working very hard in recent months to show that he is vital and relevant after the letdown following two jam-packed years and then a titanic defeat in midterm elections. Tonight is a big moment in his repackaging effort for the upcoming election.
Starting with a fall campaign kickoff at an election rally with union workers in Detroit and a speech to Congress in which Obama demanded another round of stimulus spending, Obama spent the most of the fall and all of the winter so far dedicated to the proposition of proving to voters that he is brimming with solutions and energy while Congress are a bunch of partisan hacks and layabouts.
While Bill Clinton used the similar moment of his 1996 State of the Union speech to capitalize on his post-midterm move to the middle and reaffirm his New Democrat roots – “the era of big government is over” – Obama is primarily interested in showing that he is an ideas guy and a large-scale reformer just brimming with solutions but that iniquitous Republicans and “this town” are keeping them all bottled up.
Even Democrats seem hopelessly divided over basic issues like the Afghan war, tax rates, the need for more stimulus spending, etc., so this is, of course, a lot of hot air. But Congress is the most important prop for Obama in his re-election bid. As Vice President Joe Biden tells Democratic donors so often when he’s out picking up their checks: “Don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative.”
The big advantage for Obama in divided government is that the quality of his ideas matter far less than in the first two years when his plans could be enacted. Recall the months of agony over crafting the first Obama stimulus, health law, bank regulations, global warming fees and other big-ticket items. Obama often found himself unable to corral his own party in Congress and the big ideas he had talked about as a candidate or in his first address to Congress in February 2009 ended up being political and policy disappointments.
While Clinton used a divided government to enact welfare legislation that a Democratically controlled Washington would never have accepted, Obama has used divided government as a means by which to excuse a very long re-election campaign.
Having spent much of his 12 years in public office prior to the presidency as a member of the minority party, first in Springfield and then in Washington, Obama is adept at political jujitsu. You obstruct me, I blame you for inaction. I obstruct you, I blame you for reckless partisanship. But since nothing happens except for a lot of palaver, the scorekeeping is all on making political points and messaging, areas at which Obama has excelled throughout his career.
In this environment, policies are unimportant. What matters is the next election: “I would fix things if it weren’t for those guys.” This is the preferred position of both parties in Washington today. There is a good bit of truth to this since we have the most liberal president in 43 years and the most conservative House in more than 80 years. The number of places they might have agreed were very few, but in this case, the president seemed rather relieved to be able to give up trying. Even glimmers of hope on entitlement reform were quickly doused.
The preferred narrative for the president’s re-election effort is that Obama came to office as an idealistic, post-partisan healer with a bold agenda to save the nation but that he underestimated the awfulness of Republicans, the dysfunction of Washington and the perfidy of some members of his own party. As a result he had to accept sub-par policy and engage in a great deal of hackery of his own. In this telling, Obama’s only real mistake was believing just a little too gosh-darned much in basic decency of people and the goodness of America.
Tonight’s speech will be in service of that narrative. We will get to see the full unveiling of the Obama 2.0 he and his advisers have been offering sneak peeks of for weeks: tougher, wiser, disappointed but now ready to change Washington.
There is little in his career that suggests Obama is much of a policy wonk, and even under the most favorable political circumstances he was unable to affect substantial reform in Washington. But tonight, you will get to meet Obama the battle-hardened, wonkish reformer. You will get to know him very well in the next 41 weeks.
Romney on the Attack
"The answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can't find work here because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here.”
-- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at Monday’s NBC News debate when asked how he could oppose continued residency for illegal immigrants while simultaneously opposing mass deportations.
If Newt Gingrich is, as Peggy Noonan famously wrote, “an angry little attack muffin,” then in last night’s Republican debate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was a very different kind of attack pastry. Maybe an attack scone: dry, not that flavorful but very well composed.
Inside what appeared to be the soundless depths of a giant mausoleum at the University of South Florida, Romney went to work attacking Gingrich at Monday night’s NBC debate.
Until now, Romney had been able to rely on other conservatives to do the dirty work when it came to bringing down whomever the top Not Romney of the moment was. Michele Bachmann was most adept at this wet work, prompting a Romney staffer once to brag to a Washington Post columnist that she would “rip [Rick Perry’s] eyes out” just as she had done to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. And she did, too.
Romney now employs Bachmann’s debate coach and her style was on display in Romney’s rapid-fire, direct attacks on an opponent’s character. While Bachmann delivered her blows like overhead slashes from a saber, Romney gave his like a dozen thrusts of a dagger.
The only other Not Romney still in the race, Rick Santorum, is trying to position himself as both a Not Romney and a Not Gingrich, an acceptable alternative if the two frontrunners succeed in mutual destruction. But he ended up sounding simply frustrated about the injustice of his second-tier status. And Ron Paul was no help to Romney, offering kind words on Gingrich’s monetary policy and only gentle teasing of the former speaker on their foreign policy disagreements.
The feud between the remaining Republican frontrunners is now intensely personal.
Gingrich forced Romney to release his tax returns, which will now provide new fodder for attacks over offshore accounts, Warren Buffett’s secretary and how Romney accrued his huge personal wealth.
In doing so, Gingrich, though, was forced to release his own contract with Freddie Mac, exposing him to new attacks over lobby-ish behavior, Beltway banditry and complicity in the housing collapse.
Now, Gingrich is calling Romney a liar who will do anything to get ahead and Romney is calling Gingrich a crook who satisfies himself through access to power. This is, very strictly, a character discussion. The veneer of policy talk that came with the Bain battle is now gone.
It’s just a scone vs. muffin fight from here on in.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“If you look at the swing and the electorate in Florida, it's just amazing these mood swings. Two weeks ago Romney was up by 20 over Gingrich and now it looks as if he's down by ten. That's a 30-point swing. If you get that in a patient and you pull out the lithium.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.