President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech will be less a presidential olive branch than a congressional cattle prod.
Emboldened by electoral victory and convinced the GOP is unwilling to cut deals, Obama plans to use his big prime-time address Tuesday night to issue another broad challenge at a Republican Party he regards as vulnerable and divided, Democrats close to Obama say.
He'll pay lip service to bipartisanship, but don't expect anything like the call for peaceful collaboration that defined his first address to a joint session of Congress in 2009, they say.
That strategy has its dangers: If Americans perceive Obama as too partisan, he'll lose a serious share of his personal popularity. Yet he needs to burn political capital -- and keep the GOP on the defensive -- to force the opposition into accepting more taxes and fewer budget cuts as part of a deal to avert the $1.2 trillion-dollar sequester cuts looming on March 1.
When POLITICO asked how Obama is approaching the speech compared with his previous State of the Union addresses, a person close to the process of drafting the speech replied with a 2,500-year-old quote from Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu:
"Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across."
The anodyne, stage-managed West Wing leaks have the State of the Union speech focusing on "jobs creation," poll-tested paeans to the "middle class" and a new slate of infrastructure projects that will have a tough time passing Congress. Privately, administration officials see it as an extension of Obama's unabashedly provocative and progressive Jan. 21 inaugural address, their latest attempt to leverage favorable deals on the sequester and the debt ceiling comparable to the watershed deal Obama secured on increasing taxes on the wealthy.
Obama now hopes to use his post-election popularity to force new tax increases and fewer budget cuts on Republicans as part of any deal to avert a $1.2 trillion menu of automatic cuts increasingly likely to kick in on March 1.
"There are a surprising number of Republicans who seem to think that elections don't matter, who are ready to block widely popular agenda items that the American people voted for in November," former Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt said, underscoring the elections-have-consequences attitude of the president's brain trust.
"Change isn't going to happen behind closed doors -- it'll require continued use of the bully pulpit and the reengagement of the millions of Americans who volunteered for the campaign," he added.
Obama's campaign-style efforts on health care and the 2011 jobs bill were met with initial buzz, indifferent follow-through and ambiguous results. With House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) saying he won't even sit down with Obama to talk about the big issues now, the president has hit the road again, this time with the force of his 2012 campaign organization behind him, barnstorming for his gun control measures, immigration reform and economic fairness.
At a retreat for Democratic House members last week, he sounded more like the 2012 presidential candidate than the 2009 Obama, who pined publicly for bipartisanship.
"My governing philosophy and my interest in public service grows out of how we make that union more perfect for more people day in, day out. And that starts with an economy that works for everybody," he told the group, using language refined through relentless road tests and focus groups during the election campaign.
"Throughout my campaign and throughout many of your campaigns, we talked about this bedrock notion that our economy succeeds, and our economy grows when everybody is getting a fair shot, and everybody is getting a fair shake, and everybody is playing by the same rules, that we have an economy in which we're growing a vibrant middle class," added Obama, who has pledged to stump hard for Democrats in 2014 -- in hopes of winning back the House.
He followed up with a more bellicose weekly address, slamming Republicans for allowing automatic cuts "on seniors and middle-class families" to avoid closing "even a single tax loophole that benefits the wealthy."
Republicans say Obama has been unwilling to negotiate with them over tax reform and accuse the White House of seeking to solve every problem with the same flawed formula of tax increases and modest budget cuts.
"The tax fight for the president means more taxes, more revenue. ... We can't be raising taxes every three months in this town," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "The president, he's the one who proposed the sequester in the first place. ... I'm questioning where this thing is going, because he's not moved in any serious way."
Some Democrats, including former Obama administration officials, have warned about overplaying his hand during the upcoming fiscal fight: Most of Obama's positions enjoy fairly broad public support -- but voters overwhelmingly say they want him to do more to deal with a debt that is set to exceed $14 trillion by the end of the fiscal year.
"He was right to plant a flag in the inaugural on gay rights and guns, but he was absent on economic growth and the deficit," said Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy and a co-founder of the centrist group Third Way. "We'd like to see a renewed emphasis on fiscal sanity with a challenge to both parties to leave their ideological corners on taxes and entitlements."
West Wing officials are acutely aware of the need to punch through the stilted formality of the State of the Union; Obama's performances have been notably pedestrian and ratings for the event have sagged since he took office.
This is likely to be one of the most anti-climactic speeches Obama has ever given: That's a product of the inaugural, among the most memorable addresses he has ever given, and his fast-tracking of immigration reform and gun control measures, which have already been laid out in specific policy proposals. Recent confirmation hearings -- for John Kerry for State, John Brennan for CIA chief and Chuck Hagel for the Pentagon -- included exhaustive rehashing of Obama's well-known positions on foreign policy and homeland security.
There is, as always, potential for surprise. On Friday, White House officials were hinting at broad new proposals on infrastructure improvement, and environmental activists have been leaving recent meeting at the West Wing with new hope that Obama will use his post-election bump to take broader executive action on climate change after facing severe blowback following the Environmental Protection Agency's attempts to curb emissions through departmental fiat.
And there's a possibility -- an outside chance at this point -- that Obama will offer some new initiative ahead of his planned visit to Israel next month, his first visit to the Jewish state as president, according to Democrats.
Internally, this particular speech is notable for three unique factors.
It marks the debut of former Ted Kennedy wordsmith Cody Keenan as Obama's chief speechwriter, replacing Jon Favreau, who was known internally as Obama's alter ego and had a talent for crafting in the president's patented professor-meets-prophet-meets-populist rhetorical style.
Keenan, principal author of Obama's much-admired speech in the aftermath of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, is known for a more emotive, visceral approach. Longtime Obama hands were curious to see what, if any, impact his presence will have on Obama -- who is just as capable of delivering a dud or a diamond in any given performance.
The second reality is that all of Obama's five State of the Union addresses have been among the most mirth-free exercises his administration undertakes: boring to write, labor-intensive to research and a pain to edit into speakable form -- an overstuffed valise of comprehensiveness. The inaugural, by contrast, was a barely 2,100-word dispatch written around a punchy summons to congressional action -- a sentence Obama labored viewed as the pivotal passage, and one that aides says reflects more than any other his philosophy moving forward:
"Progress does not compel us to settle century's long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time."
The last, and most intriguing dynamic, comes from the Republican side. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a rising star with the political chops to rival Obama's, will be delivering the GOP rebuttal to Obama's speech -- a performance likely to garner nearly as much buzz as the president's address and a reminder of Obama's ever-encroaching lame-duck status.
For his part, Rubio is so intent on making a better impression than Bobby Jindal -- who flopped during his turn in the rebuttal chair four years ago -- he's been gaming out Obama's SOTU strategy like a chess match. With Obama signaling a more confrontational approach, Rubio has apparently scrapped his first draft and settled on a tougher tack, according to former Bush administration operative Nicolle Wallace, appearing on ABC's "This Week."
"Forget the Obama speech," joked one former aide to the president, "I can't wait to see the Rubio thing."
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