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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.

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

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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.


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