The State of the Union: President Obama's Evolving Vision

Jan 25, 2012Bo Cutter

Obama is getting closer to the reset that will be necessary to get the country back on track but still has some substantial progress to make.

Last night was by far President Obama's best State of the Union speech. As you would expect, this is not everyone's view. Governor Romney called it "detached" from reality. Michael Gerson said, "Obama's reelection was the unifying theme of last night's speech." Dana Milbank said, "Obama's speech was flat." The Wall Street Journal saw it as a populist pitch.

I thought it was well structured, set the right tone, and began to provide an actual vision of the economy of the future. (There is a "but ...." coming.) I'm not surprised that the speech was seen by many as a reelection pitch: that's how State of the Union speeches in the last year of a president's first term are always perceived. I thought he kept the populism within normal boundaries and that his economics and jobs focus was exactly right.

However, I want to comment further on narrative, tone, and vision. This is where the "buts" creep in.

First, narrative. It is maddening to see the president take up the economy and jobs narrative so effectively when he basically gave up that story two and a half years ago, switched to health care for a year with a bit of cap and trade mixed in, and completely lost control of the political narrative. In any case, part of the reset he has to go through when/if he wins reelection is a realization that the only way to communicate to a huge continental nation what your administration is about is to maintain consistency in what you tell the American people. This year and next term have to be about growth and jobs.

Second, tone. The president's focus on "the mission," on doing this together, was exactly right and presents a stark contrast with the current tone of the Republican primaries. It is hard to imagine anything much more negative and divisive than the combined messages of Governor Romney and Speaker Gingrich. Their obvious lack of regard for each other, undisguised contempt for the President, and pessimism about America have come across as their core joint message. If they keep this up through the election, President Obama will win far and away.

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But while the president's tone is exactly right, that tone is not where his base is. And so long as the president stays anchored to the mood of his base, he will find it next to impossible to govern a divided nation effectively. This is not an abstract point: for example, it's fun to bring out Warren Buffett's assistant. But the reality is that the president can choose to have a debating point about the tax system's marginal rates or he can choose to have a better tax system that is more progressive, yields more revenue, and leads to more growth. But he cannot have both. The president, understandably, aimed his rhetoric mostly at the right, but he has just as big a task convincing his left to come on board this "we are all in this together" platform.

Third, vision. The spirit of the president's economic vision seems about right, but the particulars often seem "off" and there isn't yet a policy vision that will get here to there. The president's manufacturing economy vision at times feels like the return of the 1950s. But that highly temporary moment in time is never coming back. And there isn't a cabal of corporations moving jobs overseas just for meanness. For a real picture of how tough the manufacturing and manufacturing employment environment is, read Adam Davidson's article "Making it in America" in this month's Atlantic or the short book by Brynjolfsson and McAfee, The Race Against the Machine.

The president outlined a useful but small set of policy steps. But if he is truly going to focus on growth, jobs, and opportunity, then he will have to reach much, much further, be willing to move in very new directions, and consider putting together very different coalitions -- coalitions reflecting the radical center much more than the increasingly irrelevant right or left of American politics.

President Obama will run on the themes annunciated in this speech. I suspect he'll win. But I hope that the speech really was the beginning of a substantial rethink of where he will go in a second term.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic presidents.

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