WASHINGTON — In his State of the Union address this week, U.S. President Barack Obama got a second chance to make a first impression. As part of a concerted strategy to reposition himself after his party’s electoral setbacks in November, the president’s remarks marked another step toward a strategic makeover with the American public.
Prior to the address, aides to the president promised a speech that would be light on specifics and substance. Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, had said that no one should expect a laundry list of priorities or a spreadsheet of initiatives. Instead, he said, the remarks would reflect an uplifting tenor, outline broad themes of engagement with the new Congress and the American public, and establish a new tone of “Beltway civility.” The president delivered on many of these expectations. His speech was a confidence-building overture designed to prepare the collective American psyche for the economic challenges of a multi-polar world. He reminded his audience that the United States’ economy was still the most prosperous, that its workers were productive, and its companies still successful and entrepreneurial.
By and large, Obama’s effort to use American exceptionalism as a means of inspiring and unifying his audience was a tactic that worked, with few divisive issues eliciting partisan applause. At the same time, he cautioned that the rules of economic engagement had changed, and that the United States must upgrade its level of play by encouraging American innovation, rebuilding its aging infrastructure, and winning the race to educate its youth. Comparing the present moment to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, he urged Americans to wake up from their slumber, and make much-needed sacrifices—including federal government reforms, spending cuts, and lower deficits—to ensure the prosperity and security of future generations.
While he declared that the United States’ leadership and standing were being renewed, the reality is a bit more complicated. The strength of national leaders begins at home, and the president’s ability to exercise leadership on the world stage will depend on his ability to make difficult domestic compromises. In the next six months alone, he will face important decisions on trade, spending, and budget enforcement.. Since U.S. leadership is not solely a function of executive action, any major initiative will require the support and agreement of Congress. For this reason, international observers should follow interpretations of the president’s address and track the evolving Republican reaction closely.
In the official Republican response, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan offered a willingness to work across the aisle, but reinforced fundamental Republican principles. The Republican path to prosperity lies not with incremental spending (above current levels) in education, infrastructure, and innovation, but through reducing the size of government and unshackling the American economy, thus allowing private sector investment to generate economic growth. Like the president’s remarks, the Republican response was light on detail on how to bring about spending restraint. Ryan’s address was overshadowed in part by a second response by Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who was representing a diverse collection of “Tea Party” coalition groups. Her addition to the national conversation symbolized the political challenge Republican leaders face in their attempts at arriving at a compromise with the president.
At this point in his tenure, it is clear that Obama is arriving at a fork in the road. One path is a minimalist engagement strategy with Congress anchored in partisan confrontation, a strategy designed to maximize his political base and engage with Republican legislators only when necessary. The other path is a strategy of relying on Republicans as a key part of a ruling majority across several issues through two chambers of the Congress.
Obama’s recent announcements and compromises lead some to believe he has chosen the latter, and some elements of the State of the Union point to that. In December, in exchange for other priorities and to the irritation of many Democrats, Obama made a significant compromise with Republicans over an extension of the 2001 and 2003 Bush-era tax cuts. Other indicators include the hiring of former Bill Clinton White House aides, the conclusion of negotiations over the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement, announcements of a new regulatory review process, and a new advisory committee on job creation and American competiveness.
Others think the jury is still out. In their minds, only the knowledge of Obama’s negotiating positions on specific issues, a verification of his willingness to compromise on legislative detail, and an expenditure of political capital in issue coalitions involving Republicans would equate to a truly new governing strategy. Evidence of this strategy would include passage of trade agreements with Panama and Colombia as well as medical malpractice reform.
Over the next year, both an expiring continuing resolution funding the federal government in 2011 and a federal debt limit increase will trigger a clash of ideas on the size and role of government in American domestic policy, with implications for the United States’ ability to conduct international economic diplomacy. The reconciliation of contrasting visions will only happen through bipartisan, bicameral agreement with the President. It won’t be elegant, and it won’t be pretty. But the tone and outcome of the debt limit increase debate will start to definitively answer the question of which path Obama has chosen.
Sean Mulvaney is Director of the German Marshall Fund’s Economic Policy Program in Washington DC.Subscribe to the comments of this post.