Barack Obama, Bipartisanship, and the State of the Union as Campaign Speech

After a long two years of trying to court the center with frustrated attempts at centrist bipartisanship, the White House tries a stump speech for the SOTU. The trick to the center? It’s not a “center.”

Barack Obama State of the Union address

 

Liberals and conservatives found something to agree on about last night’s State of the Union:

“If the speech seemed frequently strong and inspiring, and seemed like a campaign speech—in fact, a 2008-style campaign speech….”

“‘The president last night gave a standard campaign left-wing speech,’ the former House speaker said….”

Barack Obama hasn’t been on the campaign trail, but his campaign has begun, as they’ve matched the Republican candidates with offices in primary states. Last night’s address was another step towards November.

It’s worth reading or listening to the speech in the context of Ryan Lizza’s outstanding new New Yorker piece, “Barack Obama, Post-Partisan, Meets Washington Gridlock.” It’s a long exploration of how Obama, temperamentally a centrist who sort-of campaigned as a liberal Democrat, navigated a partisan political environment. Carrying the weight of the liberals who helped him get elected, he ran into the headwind of an organized, conservative Republican party after the midterms. The conclusion Lizza comes to isn’t much of a reveal—"the private Obama is close to what many people suspect: a President trying to pass his agenda while remaining popular enough to win reëlection"—but the process of getting there is the interesting part.

As his approval rating declined through 2009, he looked for ways to restore his credibility as a moderate. He became intent on responding to critics of government spending and, as White House memos show, he settled into the role of a more transactional and less transformational leader.

[snip]

Obama’s moderation didn’t sway Republicans, nor did his attention to interest groups or his cuts to beloved liberal programs. Through the rest of 2009, as the anti-government Tea Party movement gathered strength, and conservative voters began to speak of creeping American socialism, Obama’s aides quarrelled over how the President should respond.

This reminded me of something I read about Jon Huntsman the other day:

Soon enough, Huntsman’s talk caught the attention of David Plouffe, Obama’s former campaign manager (whose official return to the fold begins this week, when he enters the White House as a senior adviser to the president). Asked in early 2009 which Republican he feared most in 2012, Plouffe said that Huntsman is “really out there speaking a lot of truth about the direction of the [Republican] party.”

Rahm Emanuel is said to have felt the same way:

Huntsman’s campaign has been, from the beginning, a fantasy driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of his own party. (“I still don’t understand why [White House Chief of Staff] Rahm [Emanuel] was so obsessed with him,” a top Democratic official marveled Sunday night.)

I don’t exactly blame the White House shop for this. I greatly misunderestimated the appeal of Rick Santorum’s strict social conservatism, and Newt Gingrich’s angry-bear routine. I assumed Huntsman or Romney would appeal to the Republican electorate, because they’d want to win: either would peel off a sufficient number of centrist votes and give the party a better chance in November. The “center” is growing, but it’s more complicated than the word implies:

In this environment, many political attitudes have become more doctrinaire at both ends of the ideological spectrum, a polarization that reflects the current atmosphere in Washington.

Yet at the same time, a growing number of Americans are choosing not to identify with either political party, and the center of the political spectrum is increasingly diverse. Rather than being moderate, many of these independents hold extremely strong ideological positions on issues such as the role of government, immigration, the environment and social issues. But they combine these views in ways that defy liberal or conservative orthodoxy.

Meanwhile:

The most visible shift in the political landscape since Pew Research’s previous political typology in early 2005 is the emergence of a single bloc of across-the-board conservatives. The long-standing divide between economic, pro-business conservatives and social conservatives has blurred. Today, Staunch Conservatives take extremely conservative positions on nearly all issues – on the size and role of government, on economics, foreign policy, social issues and moral concerns. Most agree with the Tea Party and even more very strongly disapprove of Barack Obama’s job performance. A second core group of Republicans – Main Street Republicans – also is conservative, but less consistently so.

In a base-oriented primary, it’s much easier to build a core bloc from across-the-board conservatives, for whom Gingrich and Santorum are much more appealing than the feckless pseudo-moderate Romney (who’s pretty moderate if you take the mean of his many positions). But is Gingrich even a conservative? Daniel Larison argues that he just plays one on TV:

He is unusual in that he manages to combine an absolutely conventional “centrist” set of positions with what conservatives perceive to be the worst traits of post-1994 Republican governance and a temperament and rhetorical style that everyone else perceives to be unhinged and extreme…. “On paper,” Gingrich is more of a moderate than Romney is today, but Gingrich’s contempt for his opponents (which Kornacki correctly identifies as a general election weakness) masks this and cancels it out.

To paraphrase Saul Alinsky, Mitt Romney has the money and Newt Gingrich has the people—the 99 percent, to be specific. I tend to think the money and the moderation will win in the end, but obviously I’ve been wrong very recently. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is rallying the base a bit… while quietly hedging its bets. America might be ready for a third party, but the center’s not going to hold it.

 

Photograph: The White House

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