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That old familiar SOTU

Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2011

If every wish ever uttered by a president in the State of the Union address had been granted, we’d be living in a much different America.

Thanks to Richard Nixon, we wouldn’t have to import foreign oil for our energy needs. Thanks to Ronald Reagan, we’d have a smaller federal government and a balanced budget. George W. Bush would have solved the dilemma of illegal immigration years ago. And thanks to Barack Obama, we’d have an economic boom, thriving green industries and an education system that even China would envy.

But State of the Union speeches are just that: wish lists. No president gets everything he asks for, even when his own party controls Congress. Just ask Obama.

There’s been a remarkable consistency in this president’s annual agenda-setting message to Congress. He’s basically delivered the same speech three years in a row. The main difference has been that, as his political fortunes have changed, he’s been forced to lower his ambitions.

In 2009, in his maiden speech to Congress, he promised that his $787-billion stimulus program would turn the economy around, and he asked legislators to pass a health-care bill, then tackle energy and education. In 2010, in his first official State of the Union address, Obama expressed regret that the stimulus hadn’t worked faster but said he still wanted that health care bill passed so Congress could move on to energy and education.

Tuesday night, he said the stimulus was finally working; he vowed to defend his health-care law against the Republicans who want to dismantle it; and he promised to look for low-budget ways to work on the two issues he still considers critical to the nation’s economic future: energy and education.

And what about the fiscal centerpiece of his speech: a freeze on most domestic spending? If that sounded familiar, it’s because it’s an updated version of a proposal in last year’s speech that, like many others, didn’t get done.

There’s been plenty of talk in Washington this winter about Obama turning himself into a centrist, but judging from Tuesday’s speech, he hasn’t changed much at all. The president’s goals are the same despite new political realities that have forced him to dial them back a bit. Even many of his proposals for reaching his goals are the same.

Now that Democrats are no longer a majority in the House of Representatives, it was no wonder that Tuesday’s address included a lyrical call to bipartisanship. The rallying cry deliberately echoed Obama’s 2004 paean to “one America,” the speech that vaulted him to national attention.

“We are part of the American family,” he said Tuesday. “We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found … we share common hopes and a common creed.” That, he said, “is what sets us apart as a nation.”

But beyond the grace notes of bipartisanship, there was a recurring theme that emphasized the sharp contrasts between the two parties — a theme Obama intends to press in the months ahead even as he tries to woo Republican votes.

He delivered a bracingly direct critique of Republicans’ plans for deep cuts in federal spending. “Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine,” he said.

His chief economic adviser, Gene Sperling, put it more bluntly in a briefing for reporters at the White House on Tuesday afternoon. “Cutting spending with a meat ax across the board isn’t, in and of itself, an economic strategy,” he said.

The message Obama hopes to send is this: He has a positive strategy for long-term competitiveness and economic growth, and he’s an optimist who believes America can rise to the occasion. “This is our Sputnik moment,” he said. And the Republicans? In the president’s telling, they’re a bunch of dour budget-cutters in green eyeshades.

Obama carefully stayed away from the specifics of how federal spending must be cut, although aides said he would propose some cuts in the budget he’s due to deliver in three weeks. If the Republicans want to propose deeper cuts in programs Americans like, White House aides say, that’s their problem.

State of the Union addresses are rarely memorable, and this one was no exception. But the speech was intended as just one piece in a much longer campaign, a campaign that took shape in last month’s lame-duck session of Congress, with its sudden bipartisan compromise over taxes; that drew strength from Obama’s graceful speech in Tucson; and that will now continue for months, as the president challenges Republicans to produce concrete alternatives to his proposals.

If that campaign, sustained all spring, succeeds in turning Obama from a defeatable one-term president into a favorite for reelection, it will be memorable enough.

• Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him e-mail at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.



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