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State of the Union: Can Obama still be transformational? (+video)

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama can fuel talk that he is the Democrats’ Ronald Reagan – an iconic figure whose goals guide his party's next generation.

By , Staff writer

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    President Obama reaches out to shake hands after giving his State of the Union message on Capitol Hill in Washington last year. Mr. Obama will center his upcoming Tuesday State of the Union message on boosting job creation and economic growth, underscoring the degree to which the shaky economy threatens his ability to pursue other second-term priorities, including immigration reform and climate change.
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    Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with President Obama at the end of January to discuss strategies for the coming immigration reform debate.
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As a first-time candidate for president, Barack Obama cast himself as a postpartisan, transformational figure – a leader who could change the trajectory of the nation.

Now, midway through President Obama's tenure, the postpartisan label is long gone – if he ever wore it at all. Politics has grown only more polarized. And Obama has morphed into a liberal standard-bearer, after his no-holds-barred second inaugural and the ambitious agenda it laid out. The blogosphere is alight with debate over whether he could end up being the Democrats' Ronald Reagan – an iconic figure whose goals and principles guide his party's next generation.

"What will be required of Obama is both practical success and four more years of ideological clarity and clarion calls," Paul Waldman, a contributing editor at the liberal American Prospect, wrote the day after the second inauguration. "He can do it, if he chooses."

Recommended: Are you more (or less) liberal than President Obama? Take our quiz!

Obama’s State of the Union message Tuesday night presents his best opportunity – perhaps for the rest of his presidency – to flesh out the details of his agenda and rank the priorities to a national audience.

Obama has four more years in office, but in reality, he may have as little as a year to enact major legislation before midterm elections get in the way – followed by the 2016 race to succeed him. In short, Obama is a man in a hurry. That may explain why his second inaugural felt more like a warm-up for the State of the Union message rather than a lofty call to unity.

In fact, Obama began to lay the rhetorical groundwork for his second term in the final press conference of his first term. The president, fresh off his success with Republicans two weeks earlier in extracting tax increases on the wealthy, warned Republican lawmakers not to demand a "ransom" in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.

"He made his attitude clear: no more Mr. Nice Guy," says Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "That was quite surprising to me, the way he came at the Republicans, and it struck me clearly that he was going to make them into his foil in the sense of a permanent campaign."

Within days, the Republicans changed course on the debt ceiling, agreeing to a short-term fix that postpones the issue until mid-May.

As for Obama's inaugural, it was intended to lay out the "vision," while the State of the Union message will provide the "details and blueprints" of his second-term agenda, then-senior adviser David Plouffe said before Inauguration Day. What Mr. Plouffe didn't say was that Obama was going to stun both his political allies and foes with a bracing call to action on a raft of divisive issues – climate change, immigration, gay rights, guns, energy, women's rights, and voting rights.

"It was a bona fide campaign speech," Mr. Hess says. "While that's unusual, it's not unique. That's in a sense what Reagan did in 1981."

It was then, in Reagan's first inaugural, that he uttered what would become one of the most memorable lines of his presidency, that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

Obama, in his embrace of government as a vehicle for good, represents a full turn away from Reaganism – and even in part from policies of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who declared in his 1996 address on the state of the Union that "the era of big government is over."

Now, as his second term begins, Obama is moving fast while the opposition is back on its heels. But here, the Obama-as-Reagan analogy might be a stretch. While the Republican Reagan had a good working relationship with Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill, Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R) haven't been able to deal.

And Reagan was able to scoop up conservative Democrats to make majorities. Today, there are no "Obama Republicans."

Obama has signaled four ways to work around his problem dealing with Congress: First is to deploy Vice President Joe Biden, a Senate veteran, to negotiate, as he did on the Dec. 31 "fiscal cliff." Second is to take executive action when possible, as with his decision to suspend deportations of some young illegal immigrants. Third is to travel frequently outside Washington to work public opinion via the bully pulpit. And fourth is to use his new outside group Organizing for Action – a rebranding of his campaign, which was called Obama for America – to mobilize his millions of grass-roots supporters to back his policies.

But ultimately, for Obama to achieve anything significant on domestic policy in this term, he'll need the votes in Congress. So in the State of the Union message, the details and blueprints of his second-term agenda will matter.

In particular, analysts say, he will have to lay out his plan for jobs and fiscal sustainability. In his inaugural, Obama mentioned the deficit just once, noting the "hard choices" required. And when he mentioned the Big Three social programs – Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – it was to take a shot at the Republicans.

"In the end, Obama has to offer cuts in entitlements, in exchange for additional revenues," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "He didn't talk about that in his inauguration speech, but he will have to in the State of the Union, because that's the direction toward a sustainable deficit."

If Obama comes in with anything less than a ringing endorsement of liberalism on Tuesday, some of the enthusiasm generated on the left by his second inaugural may fade – and with it, the hope that he will go down as the liberal answer to Reagan.

Already, to some Democrats, the Reagan analogy goes only so far. Obama as an iconic, historical figure, yes. But a philosophical touchstone? Not so much.

"I haven't seen what I consider a clear philosophical thread that runs through what he's doing," says a prominent Democratic strategist, who asked to remain anonymous.

Start with Obama's expansion of the George W. Bush-era drone program, which has alarmed civil libertarians with its targeted killings of suspected terrorists, including American citizens. Health-care reform, Obama's biggest policy victory to date, the strategist says, was not a liberal construct; the system remains rooted in the private sector. "Single payer" health care, in which government is the insurer, as in Canada and Britain, never was on the table.

"Whatever the rhetoric," the strategist says, "the policies are much more centrist than to the left."

Moreover, presidential scholars say, Obama may not even have a shot at being transformational, more because of the times than because of the qualities he brings to the office.

"The 'greatest' presidents are usually the ones who confront crisis – Lincoln and FDR, for example," says John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University. "Obama has not confronted events of that magnitude."

Furthermore, he is dealing with divided government, polarized parties, and the virtual necessity of garnering 60 votes in the Senate – a situation that cannot be changed easily, certainly not with the bully pulpit.

"I think there is the potential for careful compromises on various fronts – the budget, perhaps immigration, less likely gun control – and these will constitute substantive accomplishments in an era where Congress itself can barely legislate," says Mr. Sides. "But they will not add up to a transformation."

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