News Column

Obama 2.0: Emboldened and Ready for Battle

February 13, 2013

By Susan Page

In the State of the Union speech launching his second term, it was Barack Obama 2.0. President Obama's hair was visibly grayer than at his first speech in the House chamber four years ago. His tone was more combative. His rhetoric drew sharper lines.

He has the scars of four tumultuous years in office and the credential of having won re-election. During last year's election and especially since November's victory, Obama has been emboldened on both the battles he chooses and the tactics he uses. Voters had a stark choice on the 2012 ballot, he's noted; they chose him.

"The American people don't expect government to solve every problem," he said near the start of his hour-long speech. "They don't expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue -- but they do expect us to put the nation's interests before party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can."

The laundry list of goals Obama outlined had the sweep of a first term. He said it was critical to address climate change, an issue he sidelined after his cap-and-trade proposal went nowhere in his first year in office. (If Congress won't act, he said, he'd look for executive actions.) In an emotional close, he added gun control to his priorities in the wake of the December shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn.

He urged action to overhaul immigration, expand preschool education programs, spur manufacturing and invest in clean energy. He endorsed an increase in the minimum wage, unveiled an initiative to bolster protections for the nation's cybersystems and created a commission to study voting problems.

And as he had in each State of the Union speech since taking office during a financial freefall, he called for government action to help create jobs and rebuild the middle class. "We have cleared away the rubble of crisis," he said. Then he added, "It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country, the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead."

The State of the Union speech demonstrated that Obama's muscular inaugural address signaled a change in his administration. In both speeches, he embraced a more openly activist government and confrontational style. He feels empowered by his re-election, advisers say, and liberated from running for office again. He's also applying lessons from the past few frustrating years.

The question ahead is whether Obama's new strategy, which relies less on persuading members of Congress than pressuring them with the force of public opinion, will succeed in passing major legislation or simply create a new recipe for gridlock.

That could be tested almost immediately, on the looming battle over automatic spending cuts scheduled to go into effect on March 1. Obama said the "sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts" would jeopardize military readiness and slow the economic recovery. He said he would support "modest" steps to save money in Medicare but also called for changes in the tax code that would hit "the well-off and well-connected."

Republican leaders have flatly ruled out more revenue, however, noting that tax hikes on top earners were part of a deal struck to avert the so-called fiscal cliff at the beginning of the year. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, in the formal Republican response, accused Obama of having an "obsession" about raising taxes.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, in a response delivered for the conservative Tea Party movement, accused both parties of being "guilty of spending too much, of protecting their sacred cows, of backroom deals in which everyone up here wins, but every taxpayer loses."

There was an emotional refrain when Obama cited the stories of those in the visitors' gallery touched by gun violence, including the parents of a 15-year-old girl who had been shot and killed in Chicago a week after performing in events here for Obama's inauguration.

He called background checks for gun buyers a "common sense reform" and mentioned other ideas without specifically endorsing them. "Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress," he said. To rising applause from Democrats in the hall, he repeated the names of people and places associated with iconic shooting rampages.

"Gabby Giffords deserves a vote," he said of the former Arizona congresswoman, seated in the chamber's gallery. "The families of Newtown deserve a vote."

The president also called on Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration bill that, among other things, would provide a path for "earned citizenship" for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. "Let's get this done," he said. Members of both parties rose to applaud that. On that issue, there may be common ground with Republicans eager to repair frayed ties with Hispanic voters.

On most fronts, though, Obama's relationship with GOP leaders has soured enough that compromise seems distant. House Speaker John Boehner, seated just behind the president, looked pained through much of the speech. He and Republicans in the hall mostly sat on their hands as Obama ran through proposals on addressing climate change, on raising the minimum wage, on creating joint government-business manufacturing hubs.

Still, the president's prospects have been boosted by the divisions within his opposition, including sniping between establishment Republicans and the conservative Tea Party movement.

Also fueling the president's sense of urgency is the certainty that political attention at some point will shift to the 2016 campaign and the battle to succeed him. "Generally speaking," said Neera Tanden, a former Obama adviser who now heads the Center for American Progress, "we have a good year to get things done."

Source: (c) Copyright 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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