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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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"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."

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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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