State of the Union: Will Obama's push to the center appeal to the left?

Obama's State of the Union address will emphasize both job creation and deficit reduction, a centrist agenda. In an appeal to his base, the president sends his backers a video preview. screen capture
President Barack Obama released a video ahead of his state of the Union speech to give Americans an idea of what to expect.

Nearly three months after his self-described “shellacking” in the midterm elections in November, President Barack Obama will deliver a State of the Union address that appeals to the political center, emphasizing both job creation and deficit reduction.

Mr. Obama, who has signaled in both word and deed a move toward the political center ever since the elections, has been buoyed by the stirrings of a recovery both in his job-approval rating and, perhaps not coincidentally, in the US economy.

Some political analysts are pointing to the flurry of year-end bipartisan legislation in the lame-duck Congress as one factor in Obama’s resurgence in the polls, which included a significant recovery in his standing among independent voters, a key constituency.

But a centerpiece of that burst of legislation was a compromise with Republicans on the Bush-era tax cuts, a political deal that noticeably angered his liberal base. Now, as Obama puts forth his agenda to Congress and the country – at a time that some potential GOP challengers are engaged in pre-campaign throat-clearing – does he run the risk of further angering the Democratic left?

A key indicator is from Obama himself, who chose as the venue to preview his State of the Union address a video emailed Saturday to supporters who helped put him in office. In the video posted on the website of Organizing for America, the successor organization to Obama for America, the president says his principal focus is to create jobs, “not just now but well into the future.”

Republican themes

Obama’s message to his supporters was that America would have to “out-innovate, out-build, out-compete, and out-educate” other countries. But he also appeared to invoke traditionally Republican themes when he spoke of the needs “to deal with deficits, and our debt, in a responsible way” as well as “to reform government so that it’s leaner and smarter for the 21st century.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, (D) of New York clashed with the administration in December over the deal with Republicans to extend all the Bush tax cuts for two years. Asked Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation” how the party left would react to the new focus on cutting government spending and whether Democrats would take the issue of the deficit seriously, he replied that Democrats “are serious and will continue to be” about cutting spending.

“We know that has to happen,” he said, “but it has to be done in a smart way. And another thing the president is going to talk about is not cutting back on investments that will help us grow in the future – things like education, and infrastructure, and scientific research.”

“Yes we have to cut, and there’s a lot of waste in the government,” Senator Schumer said. “We will join with our colleagues and with the president to do it. But certain key investments we will keep.”

Schumer, who said Americans want “an optimistic future-oriented pro-growth platform,’’ added that he thought Obama’s address would be “well-received by Democrats in Congress and the country. But by all Americans more importantly.”

Reconnecting with the center

Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who angered his former fellow Democrats when he endorsed Republican Sen. John McCain for president in 2008, praised Obama Sunday for his recent bipartisanship and overtures to the political center.

“The president listened to the results of the election in November, and that's – that's the right thing to do in America,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Elections have consequences. And since then, he has really reconnected to the vital center of American politics and, I think, to the American people.”

Senator Lieberman, who announced last week he would not seek reelection in 2012, helped lead the charge in the Senate in December to push through the repeal of the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred gays from serving openly in the military, an accomplishment of the lame-duck Congress that was applauded by liberals.

The way Obama reconnected with the center, he said, “was through the remarkable accomplishments of the lame-duck session and then an extraordinary unifying speech in Tucson. I think he's got to keep that going.”

The mood of Obama’s address, he said, “has to be both unifying and confident, optimistic that we can do things if we work together. I think the main focus really has to be on, how do you keep growing jobs and at the same time deal with the biggest long-term threat to America's strength and our economy, and that is the debt?”

Appearing with Lieberman on “This Week” was Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, who served on the bipartisan deficit commission that proposed a host of measures to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years.

A need for painful cuts

Conrad, who also announced his plan not to seek reelection next year, said leadership is required to help Americans understand the need to make painful cuts in social programs.

“The American people say, don't touch Social Security, don't touch Medicare, don't cut defense,” Senator Conrad said. “That's 84 percent of the federal budget. If you can't touch 84 percent of the federal budget – and, by the way, they also don't want to touch revenue – you're down to 16 percent of the budget at a time we're borrowing 40 cents of every dollar we spend.

“So, you know, there needs to be leadership to help the American people understand how serious this problem is and that it's going to take a lot more than cutting foreign aid and taxing the rich. You're not going to solve the problem that way.”

Also praising Obama yesterday for his reaction to the midterm elections was Senator McCain, who said on “Face the Nation” he thought the president had “learned a lot” in his first two years in office.

Saying he thought there was now “common ground” for Republicans and Obama, Senator McCain said, “He is a very intelligent man. I think he's doing a lot of right things.”

In his address Obama is “going to be talking about cutting spending. That's what the message of the November election was. He'll be saying some things that we don't agree with, but … I think there's going to be a number of areas that we can at least find common ground on."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.