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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 / February 11, 2013

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.

Susan Walsh/AP/File

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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.

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Monitor correspondent Liz Marlantes previews President Obama's 2013 State of the Union address.

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."

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."


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