The ideas and policy proposals in Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address were anything but fresh and original. Much of it could easily have been harvested from any number of interchangeable speeches given during the last 20 years—not just by presidents by members of Congress, governors, mayors, and CEOs—from both parties. Yet that may have been exactly the point. By staking his claim to decades of well-worn political detritus, I think Obama has set a cunning political trap for his enemies.
A crash program for economic competitiveness? We’ve heard it dozens of times, and Obama’s speech mainly substituted new global rivals for old ones. Harrumphing about how education and a skilled workforce are they key to national prosperity? Obviously an old theme. Reorganizing major federal departments was one of Jimmy Carter’s signature initiatives. Tax simplification was one of Ronald Reagan’s. Making government a lean, mean efficiency machine has been promised many times, most notably by Bill Clinton. Across-the-board spending freezes, support for small business entrepreneurs, growing green jobs, better infrastructure, boosting exports (without, presumably, those pesky imports)—we’ve heard it all. One conceit—the “Sputnik Moment”—was so old that you wonder if the president’s young speechwriters just found out about it.
And that’s the beauty of Obama’s address. He basically put together every modest, centrist, reasonable-sounding idea for public investment aimed at job creation and economic growth that anyone has ever uttered; and he did so at the exact moment that the GOP has abandoned the very concept of public investment altogether. He’s thrown into relief the fact that Republicans no longer seem interested in any government efforts to boost the economy, except where they offer an excuse to reduce the size and power of government.
Paul Ryan’s deficit-maniac response played right into Obama’s trap: Ryan barely mentioned the economy other to imply that every dollar taken away from the public sector will somehow create jobs in the private sector economy (a private sector economy wherein, as Obama cleverly noted, corporate profits are setting records). For those who buy the idea that government is the only obstacle to an economic boom, this makes sense. But for everybody else, the contrast between a Democratic president with a lot of small, familiar ideas for creating jobs and growth, and a Republican Party with just one big idea, is inescapable. It’s a vehicle for the “two alternate futures” choice which Obama will try to offer voters in 2012.
Moreover, Obama’s tone—the constant invocation of bipartisanship at a time when Republicans are certain to oppose most of what he’s called for, while going after the progressive programs and policies of the past—should sound familiar as well. It was Bill Clinton’s constant refrain, which he called “progress over partisanship,” during his second-term struggle with the Republican Congress. During that period, the Republicans being asked to transcend “partisanship” were trying to remove Clinton from office. And Clinton wasn’t really extending his hand in a gesture of cooperation with the GOP but, by creating a contrast with their ideological fury, indicating that he himself embodied the bipartisan aspirations of the American people and the best ideas of both parties. It was quite effective.
By playing this rope-a-dope, Obama has positioned himself well to push back hard against the conservative agenda. Having refused to offer Republicans the cover they crave for “entitlement reform,” while offering his own modest, reasonable-sounding deficit reduction measures, he’s forcing the GOP to either go after Social Security and Medicare on their own—which is very perilous to a party whose base has become older voters—or demand unprecedented cuts for those popular public investments that were the centerpiece of his speech. Either way, in a reversal of positions from the last two years, Obama looks like he is focused on doing practical things to boost the economy, while it’s Republicans who are talking about everything else. Boring it may have been, but as a positioning device for the next two years, Obama’s speech was a masterpiece.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.