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Obama Swerves Back to the Center

By Clive Crook
February 13, 2013 2:30 PM EST
Clive Crook
Photographer: Elizabeth Lippman/Bloomberg
Clive Crook

“Two acts in the same play.” According to White House spokesman Jay Carney, that’s how President Barack Obama sees the inaugural address he delivered on Jan. 21 and last night’s State of the Union. If you ask me, they were two different plays -- and since I didn’t much like the first, I was glad the second was a new work.

The two events have different purposes, of course. The inaugural is a celebration of democracy. It calls for vision, inspiration, a sense of history and a measure of grandiosity. For Obama, those things are like falling off a log. The State of the Union should be more plodding -- a plainer statement of how the vision will be advanced. That’s less the president’s thing.

This year, the shift between the two speeches was bigger than usual. In the inaugural Obama was pointedly divisive. The vision he described was one-dimensional. America stands for equality and social justice, he argued, as indeed it does. Liberty, limited government and reward for merit -- equally vital to the American tradition -- scarcely got a mention.

He went out of his way to jab his opponents. He might as well have called Republicans un-American. This was unworthy of an inaugural address, when the president should speak to the whole country and tell voters who supported the losing candidate that the winner works for them, too.

Centrist Appeal

Last night’s State of the Union wasn’t divisive. It wasn’t even all that liberal. Admittedly, the promised policies were mostly variations on first-term themes -- support for sophisticated manufacturing, clean energy, education reform, infrastructure spending and so on. But Obama advanced them modestly and in terms calculated to appeal to centrists.

Did you notice how for much of the speech Representative John Boehner, leader of the House Republicans, seated just behind the president, felt constrained to applaud?

Obama sounded a Clintonian note when he said he wanted smart government not big government. Before listing his initiatives, he said they were fully paid for and wouldn’t add “a single dime” to the deficit. Obviously, that was nonsense. He was doing exactly what he ridiculed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for doing during the election campaign last year. Romney said he would cut tax rates while maintaining revenue, never saying how. Obama says he’ll increase spending without adding to public borrowing, without saying how.

Still, the president implicitly recognized the limits to activism, and I applaud him for that. The new measures would be targeted, smart and (somehow) paid for. Dry and uninspiring this approach may be, compared with the inaugural. The advantage is that it can be pitched to people who aren’t true believers in a progressive utopia.

In his inaugural, Obama said that Medicare and Social Security “do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.” (Who but a vile Republican could think Medicare makes you weak?) Last night he used the term “entitlement reform” -- calling it necessary, mind you, rather than using it to heap contempt on those who advocate it. For his benchmark on Medicare savings, he cited (pinch me) the Simpson-Bowles commission, exemplar of centrist common sense on the budget, despised by hard-liners of all kinds.

Last night, he needled Republicans only when his point was incontestable and when he knew, as a result, that the country would agree. For instance: “The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next. Let’s agree, right here, right now, to keep the people’s government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America.” That doesn’t seem too much to ask.

Bipartisan Initiative

On climate change, he applauded an earlier bipartisan initiative led by Senator John McCain, his Republican opponent in the 2008 election, though the prospects for meaningful action there seem limited. Not so on gun control and immigration, two other leading themes, where the president sees a chance for agreement. The commitment to start talks on a trade and investment pact with the European Union will thrill the Republicans’ business wing.

The only liberal red meat in the speech was the proposal to raise the federal minimum wage. I’m against it, because of the risk that it will cost jobs. Subsidizing low wages is a good idea for exactly the reasons the president mentioned in his speech -- but not if you finance the subsidy with a tax on low- wage employment, which is what, in effect, a minimum wage does. (Also, if you’re going to have minimum wages, let the states set them: Costs vary too much across the country for a federal minimum to make sense.)

Despite this morsel, progressives may feel anxious at the revival of interest in bipartisan approaches and the diminished ambition compared with the inaugural. I call these grounds for hope. Maybe, here and there, gridlock can be broken.

The key will be another topic broached by the president last night: “bipartisan comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and brings down the deficit.” The president is right that stabilizing (never mind reducing) the public debt will call for additional revenues, despite the fiscal-cliff deal which raised the top tax rate on the highest-paid 1 percent of households. A dime or two of extra revenue will also be needed to pay for his mostly sensible spending proposals.

A base-broadening reform, as advocated (again) by Simpson- Bowles, is the way to do this, and with a sufficiently bold plan rates could be cut at the same time. This could be where Obama is headed, and it’s an approach that Republicans have been open to before.

Let’s not get carried away. Washington is still broken. The State of the Union hasn’t mended it. But it hasn’t made matters worse, and these days that’s a kind of triumph.

(Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.

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