Stay on the center lane, straight ahead to re-election

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, January 25, 2011


When he delivers his state of the union address last night, President Barack Obama had good reasons to be optimistic. His approval ratings are improving and he has a clear winning strategy for the coming months. As he seizes the political center and positions himself firmly between the polarized political extremes, Obama will consolidate as the favorite to win in November 2012. In so doing, will also help his Democratic Party recover from the disastrous recent electoral defeat in the midterm elections.


Obama ended 2010 on the defensive. After leading his party to its worst electoral setback since 1994, Obama was severely criticized for his compromise with the Republican leadership to extend George Bush’s tax cuts, set to expire in late 2010, for two additional years. Reversing on a key campaign promise, Obama infuriated his critics and obtained few concessions from Republicans in the negotiation.  Yet, a combination of excessive optimism on the part of the Republican leadership and unfortunate political events have allowed Obama to regain his political footing and to devise a clear strategy that will be outlined in his state of the union address.


Despite having recovered control of the House of Representatives mostly due to low turnout rather than to a clear intention among the American electoral to deviate from the roadmap outlined by President Obama, the Republican leadership has signaled that it would rather please its vociferous rightwing electoral base than seek to transform its electoral victory into a popular majority among the American public. While Americans are moderates and have shown real concern over the growing fiscal deficit, Republicans are set to prevent Obama from winning re-election. Rather than take on the difficult mission of reducing the budget and curtailing spending, Republicans wasted precious time in pushing forth the symbolic move to repeal Obamacare in the House. Because Republicans lack sufficient votes in the Senate, the health reform cannot be repealed by Congress.  Yet, Republicans showed more interest in playing politics than in taking on the issues that Americans are truly concerned with.


Then, the attack against Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, which resulted in the deaths of 6 people and left the Democratic congresswoman critically injured, allowed Obama to take the higher moral ground, positioning himself as a national leader, above partisanship, concerned with the wellbeing of the Union. Because his initial rise to national prominence was also associated with his calling on Americans to move beyond the concept of a polarized nation of blue and red states—as he famously said in his speech in the 2004 Democratic Convention—Obama had sufficient credibility to invoke the leadership he has already built as a moderate who can bring the nation together at a time of crisis.


Obama benefited from the fact that many Americans associated the attack against Representative Giffords with the verbally aggressive discourse championed by some in the Tea Party Movement, including its symbolic leader Sarah Palin. Thus, while political divisiveness was seen as partially responsible for creating the environment that fostered this kind of attacks, Obama rose above the political brawl and convoked Americans to restore reason and civility.


Not surprisingly, since Republicans took control of the House and after the Arizona attack, Obama’s approval has increased from a low of 43% to 55%. The President will deliver the State of the Union address from a stronger position and with a clear strategy that has successfully cornered Republicans to an uncomfortable place. True, it is not just Obama’s merit. Republicans have helped by doing exactly what voters do not want politicians to do, play politics and promote partisanship.


Last night, Obama was able to outline his strategy focused on job creation and called on Republicans to work together to reduce the deficit, putting the pressure on Republican leaders to identify budget items that can be cut. As promising to cut the deficit is always more popular than actually eliminating spending and reducing entitlements, Republicans will be put against a rock and a hard place when Obama asks them to specifically identify budgets items that ought to be eliminated.  The President also distinguished himself from Congressional Republican leaders by calling on Americans to be optimistic about the future. Thus, without saying, Obama will suggest that Republicans are the party of pessimism while he represents optimism.


Granted, 2011 is just beginning and there will be many battles ahead for Obama and the Republican-controlled House. Yet, Obama did have a good start and presently seems to have a much clearer strategy than his opponents. Moreover, he has already been able to corner the Republicans into an unpopular position. It will not be easy for the Republican leadership to change the battlefield. For that reason, despite being in a seemingly weaker position than when he delivered his State of the Union in early 2010, Obama will probably be more confident and self-assured when he addresses Congress tonight.