It has come a little late for some, but Barack Obama has finally settled on his persona.
For the better part of three years, Mr. Obama seemed to be playing two characters in the same play – a post-partisan pragmatist in one scene, a preachy progressive in another.
He mastered neither part persuasively. He paid a heavy price for thinking he could.
As he prepares to deliver his third State of the Union address tonight, Mr. Obama is done with the split-personality shtick. He is not about to confuse his biggest television audience of the year by leaving any ambiguity in its mind about where he stands.
Mr. Obama pushed (successfully) health-care reform and (unsuccessfully) climate-change legislation, major demands of liberal Democrats, only to turn his back on his base by continuing tax cuts for the rich and offering a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction.
The centrist guise on the domestic front got him nowhere with Republicans or, it seems, with the American public. He averaged an overall approval rating of 44 per cent in his third year in office, which ended last week, compared to 57 per cent during his first year in the Oval Office.
As for his approval rating on the economy, don’t ask. Hint: The first digit is a three, barely.
In any other year, the State of the Union address would aim to set out the President’s legislative agenda for the coming 12 months. In an election year, it is the unofficial kickoff to the campaign.
Almost no proposal Mr. Obama makes in his speech stands a snowball’s chance of passing this Congress. His address will be an electoral platform, not a legislative to-do list.
Americans got a preview of the campaign-mode Mr. Obama last month when he delivered a signature speech in Osawatomie, Kan., the same town in which Teddy Roosevelt delivered his most memorable attack on greedy capitalists a century ago.
“There are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia,” Mr. Obama said of Republicans in Congress. “They want to go back to the same policies that stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years. And their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules. I am here to say they are wrong.”
Thus it was that Mr. Obama rebranded Republican policies as “you’re-on-your-own economics.” That exact phrase may or may not turn up in the speech. But there will be no mistaking the content of its message (that Republicans govern for the rich) or its intended audience (working-class voters in swing states).
The political slant of this year’s address was confirmed when a video preview of the speech was sent out on Saturday – not by the White House but by Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago.
Looking back a few years, this is most certainly not the kind of message Mr. Obama hoped or expected to be delivering. He was, after all, the President who aspired to heal the divisions in American society, not exploit them.
“He thought he could do what other presidents have not been able to,” offered Brown University political science professor Wendy Schiller. “He is facing the reality that partisan politics is bigger than any one man.”
And so, by embracing his inner populist, Mr. Obama hopes to salvage what is left of his first term and make the case that he deserves a second one – not, as it were, to bring the country together, but to stand as a rampart against the 1 per cent.
“The biggest challenge President Obama faces in his speech,” Prof. Schiller adds, “is linking what he’s done in office with any positive impact on the average voter.”
It would be silly to suggest Mr. Obama, whose actions likely prevented a Depression-like collapse of the U.S. economy, does not have a host of domestic-policy achievements to brag about. But that voters need to be reminded of them cannot be a good sign for him.