Last night, President Obama used the phrase “win the future” as the primary motif of his speech. But clearly, on his mind was also very particular future: the 2012 election.
Right now, that future looks bright. His approval ratings are back above 50 percent; independents are deciding they like him after all, and there is no particularly strong challenger standing out in the Republican field.
If last night was the opening gambit in the 2012 campaign, it hints that Obama understands that the two keys to getting re-elected – a centrist politics and an economic recovery – are linked. What he also needs to understand is that he’s going to have to keep hammering on the same themes if he wants them to stick.
On the positioning front, voters seem to be responding well to the new centrist Obama, who actually looks a lot like the old centrist Obama that voters elected in 2008: a president who went out of his way to show that he was not interested in being a partisan warrior and was open to working with Republicans and even including a few Republican ideas here and there.
The political events of the last two months – an especially productive lame-duck session of Congress, plus a nice moment of reflection following the tragic events in Tucson – have played to Obama’s strengths and allowed him to slip back into the role that I suspect he always wanted to play: leader of all the American people, not just the Democrats.
To the extent that Obama continued his centrist politics last night – cobbling together ideas from both sides – he should continue to maintain a wide appeal.
The bigger challenge is the state and trajectory of the economy. If unemployment is falling, businesses are creating jobs, and people feel rosy about a better tomorrow, Obama is practically unbeatable.
And while national economies are complicated beasts that defy presidents, there is certainly more to do than just stand aside and cheerlead. To the extent that the Obama administration can implement the proposed program of investments in infrastructure, education, and clean energy, as well as increasing exports, this should create jobs.
But more significantly (from a political sense), it creates a narrative that things are getting better, that America is building a future we can be proud of. It’s the same smiling horse of hope that Obama rode into town on that got every so jazzed up in the first place.
Some of this can happen at the executive level. But a lot of it requires some congressional participation.
Unfortunately, if the post-SOTU chatter is any indication (and it probably is), Republicans are not budging from their small-government old-time religion. Generally, they are generally laughing off Obama’s speech as so much misguided hot air. Even the lines that were supposed to make inroads with Republicans seem to have fallen flat among those they were intended to soften up.
Obama may by temperament prefer the bargaining chip approach (we’ll take one of your ideas and hope you vote for the thing), but at some point, he’s going to have to play a little more hardball. The only way Republicans come around to supporting some “investments” is if they feel that there will be a price to pay come next election of they don’t.
Obama started to do this last night by appealing to a national sense of purpose, and posing our challenge in us-versus-them terms. “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” He called it a “Sputnik moment.”
Obama is going to have to keep making his case to the American people in a more sustained and forceful way than he’s ever done. He’s going to have to keep hammering on the rhetoric that if we don’t take investing in the future seriously, we may as well kiss our role as a global leader goodbye.
And this is where positioning and performance come together. By framing his agenda in a way that puts America’s global competitiveness at the forefront and pulls ideas from both sides, he’s putting pressure on the Republicans to come along. And if they do, and the policies improve economy as predicted, it’s a double-bonus for Obama.
It’s a political gamble, but it’s a smart one. Now here’s hoping that Obama has the discipline to stick with it, and give this strategy the sustained effort it deserves.