In this week’s State of the Union address, President Obama did more to reset the political debate than the policy debate. He offered only a modest menu of new ideas. But he moved ambitiously to politically reposition his agenda. Most important, he continued the transformation he has undertaken since November—an evolution from prime minister to president. It was the speech of a leader with diminished legislative ambitions and expanding hopes of reelection.
Obama’s first two years were dominated by the grueling and frequently grimy struggle to pass legislation. Partly, that was by necessity: The enormity of the economic collapse he inherited demanded a substantial legislative response. But he signed his stimulus plan (like it or not) into law less than a month after he took office. From that point forward, he chose to focus his presidency largely on wrangling with Congress. Those prolonged and persistent legislative fights, particularly the forced march to health care reform, shaped his public image more than anything else he did. In that, Obama continued the tradition of Democratic presidents who tend to see themselves, particularly when they first arrive, mostly as prime ministers measured by their success at passing their party’s program.
Obama emerged from his months in the legislative trenches with many successes. In signing comprehensive health care reform, he succeeded where Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton had failed. His financial-reform legislation, though diluted, still provided a major modernization of federal oversight. In all, he probably signed into law more consequential legislation over the course of a single Congress than any other president had done since Lyndon Johnson during the heyday of the Great Society in 1965 and 1966.
For that, Obama paid a substantial political cost. The party-line struggles over Obama’s principal initiatives portrayed him to the public as a much more partisan figure than he had pledged to be during the campaign. The horse-trading and deal-making that legislative achievement demands effaced his promises to change the way Washington does business. And the sharp ideological backlash among many white voters against health care reform undermined Obama’s effort to portray himself as a centrist. Combined with frustration over a stubbornly sluggish economy, these diverse streams converged to produce the deluge that swamped Democrats in November.
Bill Clinton also spent his first two years operating as a prime minister. In the summer of 1994, as Clinton careened toward a similar electoral debacle, he lamented to an aide in the Oval Office, “I’ve lashed myself to Congress like Ahab to Moby Dick.” History will have to tell us whether Obama, in his private counsels, has erupted in similar frustration. But his speech this week suggested he has taken the same lesson as Clinton did: To win reelection, he must broaden his definition of the job.
Obama’s address was notable for its legislative modesty. On the budget, he maintained a pointed distance from the ambitious recommendations of his Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction panel. On energy, he lowered his sights from passing comprehensive legislation to limit carbon emissions to establishing a “clean-energy standard” that would promote essentially all sorts of ways to generate electrical power except through conventional coal and oil. On education and health care, he spoke almost entirely about defending the initiatives of his first two years.
Obama broke the most new ground in framing and tone. As he previewed in an early-December North Carolina speech, he described the public investments he has long supported in education, infrastructure, and research (particularly in clean energy) as foundations of America’s response to the new “Sputnik moment” created by rising economic competition from China, India, and others.
Slapping an “investment” label on federal spending in such areas isn’t likely to mollify Republicans. At an Atlantic/National Journal event I moderated on Wednesday morning, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, chairman of the House Republican Conference, dismissed Obama’s investment agenda as an effort to “double down on the stimulus.” But it’s not clear that most Americans will agree with Hensarling, especially when the president links such investments to the rest of his competitiveness agenda: expanding free trade, reforming corporate taxes, and (modestly) streamlining federal regulation. This retooled program carries echoes of Abraham Lincoln and the first Republicans, with Washington focusing its effort on fortifying the nation’s productive capacity.
Obama hasn’t fully grappled with the implications of that shift: To do that would require redirecting federal tax and spending policies from consumption to investment far more than he has contemplated so far (for instance, by trimming entitlements). But even these first steps could help him connect with groups that have resisted him, particularly business leaders.
Just as important, Obama’s emphasis on competitiveness reframes the nature of his leadership. It repositions him from leading one party into battle against the other to leading the entire nation into economic competition against foreign challengers. That is the mission of a president, not a prime minister. Obama’s speech this week suggests he believes that if he wants to remain the former, he must mostly retire the latter.
This article appears in the January 29, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.