The big question for the base of the Democratic Party before the State of the Union speech was whether the President Obama is up for a fight with Gingrich or any other Republicans.
For the last three years the heart of the coalition that elected Obama --Democrats and independent voters -- has seen its passion for their candidate drain. They watched as a cool, aloof, former law professor tried to negotiate with Republicans in Congress who presented a charged, united opposition and confessed openly that their goal was making him a one-term president.
After only a few minutes, it became clear that the president has laced up his rhetorical boxing gloves.
He presented himself as a political centurion vowing to stand against the right’s call for less regulation, less taxes on the rich and less of government ‘picking winners’ by offering financial help to support manufacturing industries or alternative energy companies.
Here was Obama standing tall for the American middle class and promising to lead them to a better future. He was combative as he put in place a battle plan that holds the rich accountable with a tax code that is simple and fair as well as by defying GOP complaints about big government by doubling down on America's investment in education, energy and infrastructure.
The debate that will define the 2012 presidential election is now set. No matter if the GOP candidate is Gingrich, Mitt Romney or some last surprise entrant, President Obama has defined the terms of his political engagement as a fight against Republicans as a party of the rich, out of touch with the middle class.
“We will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony financial profits,” Obama said of the GOP’s vision for America.
Tonight, I want to speak about how we move forward, and lay out a blueprint for an economy that's built to last – an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values” he stated.
Obama strategically put the unpopular, politically polarized Congress around the GOP’s neck as a do-nothing Congress locked down by an obstructionist Republican majority in the House.
He did it by outlining specific legislative proposals that he will sign into law if the Congress sends them to his desk. That is direct shot at Republicans in Congress don’t want give him any legislative victories.
The new Obama agenda calls for having federal prosecutors punish the bankers who tanked the global economy in 2008; tax breaks for companies creating American manufacturing jobs; doubling U.S. exports; pursuing China on their trade law violations; increasing natural gas production and government subsidies for companies developing alternative energy.
All of these proposals, if enacted into law, would create jobs and benefit middle class Americans.
The president also gave voice to the populist anger that has fueled the Occupy Wall Street movement. Remember that polls show OWS more popular with independent voters than the Tea Party.
He argued that a new tax code should follow the rule of billionaire Warren Buffett. “If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes” he said to the House gallery which included Buffett’s secretary who pays a higher tax rate than he does.
But Obama went even further. “If you're earning a million dollars a year, you shouldn't get special tax subsidies or deductions. On the other hand, if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98 percent of American families, your taxes shouldn't go up. You're the ones struggling with rising costs and stagnant wages. You're the ones who need relief ” he said.
And then Obama answered his GOP critic’s central criticism head-on.
“Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”
Obama preemptively answered the charge the Republicans will make against him with middle class voters: he will not raise their taxes.
Despite GOP rhetoric, the fact is he has cut taxes for most Americans for the past three years. In the process, he sets himself up as the tribune of the 99% and the candidate who will reign in the excesses and abuses of the 1%.
The president’s top political advisers still believes that they will be running against multi-millionaire Romney at the end of the GOP nominating process.
They will cast Romney as the personification of the 1% plutocracy who enriches itself at the expense of everyone else. Romney’s now-public tax returns and the stories of the workers who were fired because of his former company, Bain Capital, will make this much easier for them.
When faced with that prospect, the remaining GOP primary voters might start to think that Romney is just not up to the job and that Newt Gingrich is the best man to meet Obama in the ring of ideas this fall.
After all, Gingrich is most effective when he is being combative.
Mitt Romney needs to step up his game -- now. If he doesn’t, Gingrich may well knock him out in the primary. Even if Romney survives, he will be facing a new, battle-ready Obama after last night.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His latest book "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) was released in July.