Obama and the Republicans

Pete Souza/White House
President Barack Obama greeting Speaker of the House John Boehner before delivering the State of the Union address, Washington, D.C., January 25, 2011

President Obama, more popular than he’s been in a long time, is nonetheless negotiating very tricky terrain. But so, too, are the supposedly triumphant Republicans, with their often obstreperous ideologically extremist Tea Party partners. Obama wants to preempt the Republicans on some legislative issues. This is already disappointing or even enraging his most ardent followers, but he’s also making a strenuous effort to win back for 2012 the independents who made his victory possible in 2008 but then voted Republican in 2010.

To accomplish that goal, Obama has ceded the Republicans considerable territory and is arguing on their terms. He has accepted the long-held Republican premises that the government is too big and unwieldy, that regulations can get in the way of jobs, that the huge deficit can be handled by spending reductions without tax increases, and that federal workers (a frequent target of “small government” advocates) must accept a wage freeze (already imposed).

He’s also agreed that spending on domestic programs is such a big part of the problem that it should be frozen for five years, which will mean actual reductions in some of those programs. (His budget was to be submitted February 14.) To make cuts in defense spending and ward off Republican charges that he’s “weak on defense,” he’s hiding behind Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s apron strings, saying in his State of the Union address they are Gates’s proposals. But a very big question is whether the economy is yet on strong enough footing to begin seriously cutting spending. When I ask officials they give the impression that they are going on a wing and a prayer that we won’t slide back into another recession.

In his address Obama wrapped additional federal initiatives—more money for education, infrastructure, and “innovation”—in the term “investments,” which didn’t fool the Republicans for a minute, and they made this clear to the public, the real audience for his speech. Though unemployment was hovering just above 9 percent in January (the unemployment number is considerably higher when one counts those who have given up looking or have had to take part-time jobs), he didn’t dare talk forthrightly about more spending. So he reached back to the oft-used and useful concept of “competitiveness,” to stir up optimism and appeal to that part of the American psyche that wants the US to be the best-educated, most innovative, and most creative nation in the world. And he played on the worry—the fact—that we’re falling behind.

This theme has been used against the Soviet Union, Japan, and now—though Obama didn’t name it—China. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also talked of competitiveness in their State of the Union addresses and so, for that matter, did presidents going back at least as far as Dwight Eisenhower, who used it…

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