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Obama's plan to win 2012 presidential election takes shape

President Obama's State of the Union, along with the speeches that have followed, point to a blend of Kennedy vision and Reagan optimism to 'win the future' and fend off GOP challengers in the 2012 presidential election.

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Obama's competitiveness pitch could also attract what Lakoff calls "biconceptuals," people who are conservative on some issues (most often economics) but progressive on others (social issues). This slice of the electorate, 15 to 20 percent, is crucial to Obama's reelection prospects.

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Lakoff suggests that Obama implicitly declared economic war in his State of the Union message by asking for a long-term economic mobilization. "So when conservatives say, 'No, investment just means spending,' his narrative makes them unpatriotic," he writes. "In a war, we have to all work together. And he is the commander in chief. He gets the moral authority."

Obama rejected a campaign "frame" to his State of the Union message, saying that "at stake right now is not who wins the next election – after all, we just had an election."

But by bringing it up, he telegraphed just that: an opening bid at reelection. "At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else," Obama said. "It's whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It's whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but the light to the world."

Obama has disappointed deficit hawks by not addressing in any comprehensive way the nation's unsustainable fiscal path, leaving that terrain to the Republicans.

Is Obama positioning the GOP as the party of budget cuts and "eat your spinach" while he's Mr. Optimism?

"He's trying," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres.

But ultimately, Mr. Ayres says, Obama "has very little credibility at the moment with independents on the whole issue of fiscal responsibility."

Whether that will be a critical voting issue come November 2012 is unclear. A recent Gallup poll found 84 percent of Americans view the federal budget deficit as "extremely" or "very" important, behind only the economy and unemployment in a list of domestic and foreign issues.

But another Gallup poll taken around the same time found majority opposition to cuts in spending in all areas except foreign aid. On one of the biggest drivers of the fiscal imbalance, Medicare, 38 percent favored a cut in spending versus 61 percent opposed.

"Americans don't care about the economic arguments" behind the fiscal imbalance, says Zelizer. "But symbolically it's powerful. A balanced budget is a symbol in the US of a government that's in control – in control of spending and its policies."

For Republicans, crafting a campaign narrative against Obama will be easier once the party has a presidential nominee, more than a year away. The dueling responses to the State of the Union message – the official GOP reply from Congressman Ryan and the separate tea party response from Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota – created an embarrassing split-screen effect.

But the election will be, foremost, a referendum on Obama, and so having a compelling story to tell – one of economic recovery, he hopes – matters more for him than his opponent.

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