SOTU Analysis: Obama goes for Kennedy, GOP opts for Nixon

President Obama delivered a hopeful speech to the nation Tuesday, calling on Americans — and a Washington audience tamed by bipartisan seating and the recent tragedy in Tucson — to put aside past differences and work together to “win the future.”

My quick takes on the speech (transcript and video here.)

It was focused: The president framed the entire speech, and his overall vision, in terms of jobs. He linked his idea of government as a sort of super venture capitalist, to the creation of innovative private business and jobs. I fact, “jobs” was the single most mentioned word in the speech. Even Obama’s shout-out to the DREAM Act and immigration reform was framed in terms of jobs and economic growth.

It was light on victory laps: the president defended his and Democrats’ successes over the last couple of years but didn’t harp on them. His most vigorous defense was on healthcare, which drew a standing-O from Democrats interspersed throughout the House gallery.

It was business-friendly: the president called for lowering the corporate tax rate, and pushed for further investments in supporting business innovation. That should please corporate America, which has already gotten a new chief of staff and Jeff Immelt in its post-Christmas stocking.

Obama played “Tiger dad”: calling on families, schools and teachers to do more to produce highly educated American kids. He got sustained applause by calling on Americans to have more respect for teachers, and also called for the junking of No Child Left Behind. He correctly stated that his replacement, “Race to the Top,” is the largest investment in education in a generation, and the pro-teacher line was an important signal to teachers unions who dislike the president’s reform approach that the president isn’t out to get them. And the president included a Kennedyesque touch, calling on young people to “make a difference by becoming a teacher,” adding: “your country needs you.” (He also called on universities who had banned ROTC from their campuses due to DADT to allow recruiters back on.)

It was competitive: the president cited Asia (China and India by name) in calling on America to have a new “Sputnik moment” to prove that we can out-innovate and out-compete any nation on earth. That section of the speech was effective in that it appealed to natural American competitiveness, and could ally the president and the business lobby, in turn pressuring Republicans to give in on pro-innovation initiatives.

It will tweak the tea party, and the left: the president called for new “investments” (read spending) in infrastructure and the anathema of the tea party; high speed rail. But the speech was sufficiently centrist, including calling for reforms to Medicare (though he insisted upon protecting Social Security and said the budget should not be cut on the backs of the vulnerable) that it will bug some on the left, too. (Interestingly, the president called for paying for his infrastructure and innovation ideas in part by repealing oil industry subsidies, something for which Speaker Boehner and most of the GOP did NOT applaud.)

It boxed in Republicans: the speech offered some tempting proposals for Republicans: a major government overhaul? Rewriting the tax code? These things will be hard for Republicans to say “no” to, though they will try. But saying “no” won’t yield 2010 style benefits this year, with the economy improving. If Republicans give in to the temptation to fight the last war instead of keeping up with Obama’s dash to the middle, their nominee could be seen as the Scrooge to Obama’s Ronald Reagan. (Obama even got a standing applause from John McCain, by vowing to veto any bill with earmarks in it.)

Moreover, the themes of American ascendancy and “can do” spirit, and the calls for national unity of purpose will be tough for the GOP to rebut, particularly since the president remained non-specific. And he laid down markers: no earmarks (he’ll veto them — and what a trap that is for lawmakers who now cede spending leverage to the executive branch); no full scale reversal on healthcare (though he’ll look at “improvements,”) and no extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich beyond 2012. Game on.

There was little in the speech about foreign policy, and it was light on specifics. But overall, the speech was well written (one benefit of having a president who’s a writer) and well delivered, neither of which are surprising given this president’s core skills. It was also soaring (especially when read) without being over the top. And it was unifying — pulling all Americans under one banner, and forgoing the slicing of America into interest groups, whether ethnic, cultural, regional or otherwise. I think that was smart, and it will help the president continue along the middle path that’s helped boost his approval ratings over the last two months.

To my mind, this was the Obama of 2004 even more than the Obama of 2008 — calling on the country’s sense of shared purpose and presenting himself as a man willing, even eager, to work with Republicans to move the country forward. It had touches of Reagan (optimism, can-do Americana) and Kennedy (vision). The question is, how does a Republican Party that’s shackled to the tea party respond?

Answer: by playing Richard Nixon to Obama’s JFK.

For starters, the official GOP response from Paul Ryan (full text here) was competently and earnestly delivered, but somewhat flat. Ryan came across like a young IRS agent — all green eyeshade and no inspiration. He essentially said — with a smile reminiscent of a guy reading his kids a bedtime story — that America is going off a cliff and can’t spend money on anything but defense. Missing from Ryan’s short, dour speech (not even a glancing mention of the troops, or anything about American exceptionalism or even the hint of a possibly bright future…) was his on-the-record proposal to privatize Social Security and turn Medicare into a voucher system — things Ryan’s Republican colleagues have given him the fiat power to put into the budget.

And then there was Michelle Bachman’s speech. Where to begin … only CNN carried it live, and what a thing to behold. Bachman delivered fairly standard tea party boilerplate — and wouldn’t be that remarkable if you just read the prepared text. But while staring into the wrong camera through heavily lined eyes. It was in short, bizarre, just on the basis of presentation alone — though not as strange as watching CNN’s anchors trying to take it seriously.

To some responses.

The National Journal: the opening argument for 2012 | A night for “O-ceptionalism

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