State of the Union, or State of the Campaign?

Was that a State of the Union address or was it President Barack Obama's first big campaign speech of 2012? It certainly sounded like the latter, but given the state of Washington, what else could we expect? His opening lines, a tribute to the soldiers who returned home from Iraq, was a reminder of a promise kept from his first campaign — and it was followed by a reference to the killing of Osama bin Laden under his watch, and that by a dig at how little has been accomplished by a deeply divided Congress. Even what's usually a guaranteed bipartisan applause-getter, a paean to the troops, was a preview of the campaign trail.

But if the president didn't waste time getting to politics, Republicans didn't even bother waiting for the president to give his speech before issuing harsh rebuttals. The GOP's actions over the last three years have given no indication that they would seriously entertain any new policies he proposed tonight. The only thing that is going to resolve the partisan gridlock in Washington is an election, so we might as well get on with it.

The question about this State of the Union, then, becomes not how well the president laid out a course of action for the remainder of this term but how well he articulated his case for getting a second. Much remains to be said before voters go to the polls, but the president effectively articulated the differences between his vision for the nation and his opponents'. He called for an America in which the wealthiest pay their fair share, the middle class have a fair shot at getting ahead, and the poor can get help climbing up the economic ladder. If the GOP wants to challenge that in a week in which one of their leading contenders for president revealed that he made $21 million last year and paid less than 15 percent in federal taxes, they can go right ahead.

Republicans likely tuned out of this speech as soon as the president started recounting the circumstances that got the nation into such dire economic straits in the first place. But noting how deep a hole we started in does not amount to a second attempt to run against President Bush. Rather, it provides the crucial context on which to judge the direction in which we're headed. "The state of our union is getting stronger," President Obama said, "and we've gone too far to turn back now."

There are some hopeful signs that he's right about that. Hiring last year was stronger than it's been since 2005. Manufacturing is up, and so are exports. Those who claim the kinds of policies the president articulated in his speech amount to nothing more than class warfare and government bloat deny both the scope of the economic failure of the previous administration and the progress, albeit far too slow, that we have made since.

The steps President Obama called for to accelerate us on this path should not be controversial, but they are, almost to an item, dead on arrival in a Congress where Republicans control the House of Representatives and are able to block action in the Senate. Ending tax breaks for companies that outsource jobs? An unacceptable tax increase. Calling for an end to tax breaks for oil companies and the creation of new ones for clean energy innovation? Shades of Solyndra. And ensuring that Warren Buffett's secretary —in the House gallery to underscore the point — pays a lower share of her income in taxes than her billionaire boss? Class warfare.

The president made clear that he plans no major pivot as he seeks a second term but, instead, is betting that his message of promoting fairness and responsibility will resonate with the American public. That means we shouldn't expect much immediate change from the gridlock that has consumed Washington for the last two years — but we can hope for a clear message from voters this November about the direction we take for the next four.

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