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Echoes of Clinton and Reagan

Terri Bimes, political science lecturer | January 26, 2011

I was struck by how well-behaved members of Congress were tonight at the State of the Union Address — even if they did not laugh at President Obama’s jokes.  No members were checking their Blackberrys. There were no harangues from the floor. No eye-rolling or mouthing silent disagreements with the president. The Republican-Democratic date night (in which Democrats and Republicans sat side by side instead of on opposite sides of the floor) seemed to go well.  The partisan rancor of last year’s state of the union address was definitely tamped down.

On a more serious note, I think that the themes struck by the president’s speech were both Clintonesque and Reaganesque. Like Clinton’s remarks to a newly elected Republican Congress in 1995, Obama tried to emphasize his centrist governing style by promising to modify certain aspects of the health care reform bill, considering medical  malpractice reform, simplifying the tax structure, freezing much domestic spending, and doing away with bureaucratic overlap.

Many accused Clinton of playing “small ball” in the final years of administration. In this address, Obama still pledged some major initiatives, but he seemed to emphasize more defensive measures—vetoing any bills with earmarks as well as vowing not to extend Bush era tax cuts to the richest 2 percent. The rhetoric of this state of the union address was significantly scaled down from the rhetoric of his inaugural address where he scorned those who questioned the scale of his ambitions.

The speech was Reaganesque in its relentless focus on America’s promise and exceptionalism.  Like Reagan, Obama sought to craft a coherent narrative that links his programs to a broader vision of American leadership going forward. That narrative is unlikely to persuade any Republicans to support his specific plans.  But it may well position Obama successfully with respect to the public.