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Obama is back in the future business

The president’s State of the Union address lays out the ideological battle lines for 2012.

By Felicity Spector

There’s normally a set-piece choreography to State of the Union speeches: from the laundry list of commitments, a result of weeks of lobbying from every department of government – Include this! Promise that! – to the seating, corralling members of Congress along very definite party lines. In fact, the seating arrangements took on a new importance last time there was a divided government – as President Clinton addressed a newly Republican-dominated Congress, confused representatives were left peering at the House Speaker, Tom DeLay, to work out whether they should applaud or not. If he clapped, they clapped. The slight pause between recognition and approbation was known as the DeLay delay.

This time, post-Tucson, the seating was deliberately all mixed up, a gesture towards the spirit of bipartisanship and the “era of civility” to which everyone spent the last few days paying tribute. True, no one called Obama a liar this time – though there wasn’t much bipartisanship in this tweet from one Republican congressman during the speech: “Mr President, you don’t believe in the constitution. You believe in socialism.”

Socialism this wasn’t – but it was Obama’s attempt to lay out his ideological battle lines for the 2012 campaign – and it wasn’t quite the centrist pitch that it first appeared. For Obama was trying to do two things with this speech. First off, it was a staunch defence of the role of government – especially at a time of spending cuts. For America to preserve its place in the world, he argued, it needs investment (for which read, more stimulus) and innovation. And an administration that leads the country into the future.

When Bill Clinton was forced into working with his political rivals, he famously declared that “the era of big government is over”. In fact, it was never supposed to be remembered quite like that. Michael Waldman, Clinton’s former director of speechwriting, told me how his speechwriting team had originally crafted the phrase thus: “The era of big government is over, but the era of every man for himself has not yet begun.”

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Optimism triumphs

It was supposed to defend the idea of government spending at the same time. But by the time it had been rewritten, it was clunky and unwieldy – and every TV station in the land truncated the soundbite after the memorable bit. At one fell swoop, Waldman admitted, only half jokingly: “We killed off liberalism.”

No such stuff this time, as Obama declared that “we do big things” – and evoked the days of FDR and the space race, echoing the “Sputnik moment” he hailed back in December – a complaint against complacency in the face of global competition.

There were a few olive branches to the Republicans – a five-year spending freeze, an end to earmarks, some lower corporate tax rates. “What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow,” he declared.

But that is certainly not a given. Not judging by the offical GOP response to the speech last night from the party’s Budget point man, Paul Ryan. He talked about a “spending binge” – and “catastrophic” debt – and laid into Obama’s health-care reform, arguing that “job creation is being stifled by all of its taxes, penalties, mandates and fees”.

However – with perhaps more than one eye on 2012 – this speech had a second objective: to rediscover the political narrative that proved so powerful for Obama back in ’08. Remember hope? As E J Dionne put it in the Washington Post – in politics, “optimism trumps pessimism every time”. Talk of catastrophic debts and the like is all very well, but, fresh from the rhetorical flights of Tucson, Obama’s team wanted to lay out their story for America, and be confident enough not just to dream of a bright future, but to lead the way there.

It’s no accident that in the wake of a national tragedy, Obama’s numbers are on the up. By all accounts, he rose to the moment, when it was needed. And this yearning for bipartisan unity chimes rather neatly with what this president was supposed to be all about.

The White House communications chief, Dan Pfeiffer, told New York magazine they tried to recast their “shellacking” in November as a plus point. “We ran as a post-partisan problem solver. We were endorsed by prominent Republicans. We got here, we tried to be that guy, Republicans basically turned their backs to us, and we had a choice: we could do nothing or we could do things. We chose to do things.”

One of Obama’s chief problems since taking power – and a chief disappointment to many of his supporters – was that he’d somehow lost his storytelling touch. Minus the rough-and-tumble of an election campaign, the aloofness took over. The Tucson speech was a return to his rhetorical form: the State of the Union painted a more prosaic vision.

Win the future – that was his mantra last night. And it’s about not just winning the next election, but redefining the political centre. With a budget fight next on the agenda, and a Republican Party equally determined to control the narrative ahead.

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News.