For the last few months, followers of U.S. politics have been treated — or subjected — to a steady diet of Republican campaigns. Democrats have been mostly quiet as the GOP candidates battle among themselves for the nomination. President Barack Obama will be the Democratic Party candidate and, as president, he struggles to stay above the fray, looking and acting presidential. All the while, however, he is laying the ground work for the fall when he shifts into campaign mode.
In his 2008 bid for the White House, Mr. Obama pledged to change the way that Washington does business. He promised to heal, or at least bridge, the yawning partisan divide in that city. By every account, he failed. Preparing for the 2012 campaign, Mr. Obama has decided to reclaim that lofty vantage point, but he has introduced a populist twist, arguing that the source of the stalemate is a political system that protects a privileged few but demands sacrifices from the rest of the country. He signaled that tack — one urged on him by left-leaning supporters — in a speech in early December at Osawatomie, Kansas, that channeled U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism.”
Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address on Jan. 24 took up the message in full throat. The over-arching theme of the speech was unity, a message with which he has begun each of his State of the Union addresses. This year, he used the military to exemplify an organization that understands that the mission — the shared goal — is what matters: “They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.” And of course, the reminder to the American people of his administration’s success in finding and killing Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaida leaders burnishes his national security credentials.
There was little in the speech that addressed foreign policy concerns. He noted the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan. He mentioned the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East, and reminded Iran that the U.S. is determined to stop its alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon capability. He also reiterated “the iron clad” U.S. commitment to Israel’s security; nothing was mentioned about peace talks with the Palestinians.
Of the much-ballyhooed U.S. “pivot” to Asia, Mr. Obama merely restated that “America is a Pacific power.” He made no mention of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an odd omission for an initiative that is supposed to guide U.S. engagement with the most vibrant region of the global economy. U.S. alliances in Asia, the sinews of U.S. presence in this region, got a nod, along with those of Europe.
Mr. Obama mentioned China, but primarily in the context of its economic and trade practices. He announced the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that “will be charged with investigating unfair trade practices in countries like China. There will be more inspections to prevent counterfeit or unsafe goods from crossing our borders.”
This is part of a broader effort to level the economic playing field and open new markets for U.S. products. For the Obama administration, this is a pillar of the revitalization of the U.S. economy — the restoration of its status as one of the world’s leading manufacturing nations. This too reflected the grand theme of the speech — fairness and equal opportunities for all. In this case, Mr. Obama scanned the international horizon, not merely that which is bounded by the Beltway.
The president returned to the need for domestic reform, as articulated in this passage, the real core of the address: “It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody.”
Here is the populist theme Mr. Obama outlined in Kansas, and it takes root in every one of his policy initiatives, from taxation to education. His call for all Americans to pay their fair share — made most plain in “the Buffett rule,” whereby all taxpayers with income over $1 million annually would be obliged to pay a 30 percent tax rate — is the most visceral expression of this vision. When the presidential campaign reaches its full fury, it is sure to be denounced as fomenting “class warfare”; many of Mr. Obama’s current critics have already tarred him with that brush.
But an increasing number of Americans are receptive to Mr. Obama’s outlook. A recent poll shows that two-thirds of Americans believe there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor — an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009. These voters are not envious of the rich, nor do they seek to deprive them of their wealth. They do see themselves as disadvantaged by a political system that favors the wealthy.
As Mr. Obama explained: “We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference.”
While this is likely to be the central debate of the 2012 political campaign. And while Mr. Obama’s speech last week was as partisan as it was presidential, it still looked like an accurate reflection of the state of his nation.
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