The Public Eye: Obama Wins Round One

By Bob Burnett
Monday January 31, 2011 - 09:21:00 PM

Twenty-two months will pass before Americans cast their votes on November 6th, 2012, but few who saw Barack Obama’s State-of-the-Union address on January 25th doubted that the Presidential campaign had begun. The President’s stirring speech contrasted with the tepid Republican responses delivered by Representatives Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann and established the ideological battle lines for the next election. 

Since the Democrats “shellacking” in the November 2nd Midterm election, President Obama has regained focus and the 2011 State-of-the-Union address found him in top form. At the moment, Republicans don’t have a consensus national spokesperson and so they countered Obama with two voices from the extreme wings of the Grand Old Party. Representative Ryan gave the official Republican response, while Representative Bachmann spoke for the “Tea Party” faction. 

Obama delivered a positive message: America is recovering from “the worst recession most of us have ever known.” “We are poised for progress” and if we work together the US can have another “Sputnik moment,” create jobs and heal our society, because “we do big things.” In contrast Ryan and Bachmann trumpeted alarm. They warned that America is on the road to bankruptcy and to avoid our “day of reckoning” we must drastically reduce the size of government and cut taxes. 

Obama portrayed government as a force for good, an agency to harness America’s energy and innovation and create jobs. In contrast, Ryan and Bachmann described government as an obstacle that needs to be removed so the free market can create jobs. Thematically, Obama pushed “reform, responsibility, and innovation,” while Ryan and Bachmann called for “a renewed commitment to limited government.” The President made specific proposals for job creation, education, infrastructure development, tax code reform, and debt reduction. Representatives Ryan and Bachmann had one focus: repeal of Healthcare reform. 

Thus the 2012 Presidential campaign opened with clear statements of the polarized perspectives. For Democrats the Great Recession was produced by failed conservative policies, but the actions of the Obama Administration and the Democratically controlled 211th Congress solved most of our economic woes, and the remaining challenges can be met by thoughtful government action. The GOP claims the Obama Administration caused the Great Recession and the President’s actions increased the Federal bureaucracy and the national debt. For Republicans the only solution is a drastic reduction in the size of government in order to “unshackle our economy.” 

Most Americans are concerned about both high unemployment and the national debt. How the contrasting State-of-the-Union speeches were received depends upon which problem was seen as needing the most attention. In the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll respondents overwhelmingly (43 percent) believed that Congress should focus on job creation. In contrast, only 14 percent saw the “federal budget deficit” as Congress’ top priority. President Obama got this message and the vast majority of his State-of-the-Union remarks concerned job creation. Ryan and Bachmann didn’t get the message and, therefore, focused on the deficit. 

Not surprisingly, spot polls showed that a strong majority of viewers (84 percent) had a positive view of the President’s remarks. And swing voters were also favorably impressed. Ryan and Bachmann were unsuccessful. 

Therefore Obama won the opening round of the 2012 Presidential campaign. And, by discussing most of the problems that vex Americans, the President established the context for a series of Congressional battles that will likely take the same general form: the White House will propose a program to tackle a particular problem; the Republican controlled House of Representatives will refuse to take his proposal seriously and, instead, pass draconian budget cuts; and these will stall in the Democratically controlled Senate. 

For example, in his State-of-the-Union address the President proposed to create jobs by an investment in “innovation:” a “level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the Space Race… in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology.” Obama continued, “to help pay for it, I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies.” Even though Americans in general liked this idea, Obama’s proposal likely will not get a hearing in the House and, instead, Republicans will try to slash the Federal budget, to magically create jobs by bleeding the body politic. 

The next major battle between the President and Republican ideologues will occur in March. This past December, Congress failed to pass a yearlong budget and, therefore, Federal agencies were funded by a continuing resolution that expires on March 4th. Republicans will use the necessity for another continuing resolution as an opportunity to savagely reduce funds for many Federal agencies. Extremists, such as Representatives Ryan and Bachmann, will threaten to “shut down” the federal government unless their demands are met. 

Over the next twenty-two months Americans should expect total political gridlock. Whether this ultimately benefits Democrats or Republicans on November 6th, 2012, depends upon how effectively the President uses the bully pulpit. The good news about the President’s State-of-the-Union address is that Obama appeared to have found his Mojo. He’ll need it to fight battle after battle with Republican obstructionists and address America’s most pressing problems. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at