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The Globe and Mail

Combative Obama breaks the olive branch with GOP

First lady Michelle Obama and guests applaud during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012. Front row, from left are, Jackie Bray, Obama, retired Capt. Mark Kelly, Jill Biden, Sgt. Ashleigh Berg, Hiroyuki Fujita, Richard Cordray, and Sara Ferguson. Second row, from left are, Eric Schneiderman, Juan Jose Redin, Debbie Bosanek, Laurene Powell Jobs, Alicia Boler-Davis, and Col. Ginger Wallace. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Susan Walsh/AP

Has the uniter become the divider?

Barack Obama vowed to end the "petty grievances" and "worn-out dogmas" that had gridlocked American politics. But as he embarks on what promises to be a bitter election campaign, the President has chosen to embody partisanship, not transcend it.

Mr. Obama's State of the Union speech on Tuesday marked a clean break from his two previous ones. He spoke as the nation's Democrat-in-chief more than its chief executive.

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That may disappoint some. But the post-post-partisan Obama looks like a far more formidable foe for any Republican rival. Provided the economy does not flat-line, what voter could resist the candidate with the Al Green falsetto promising a "fair shot" for all?

Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich or an as-yet-undetermined Republican white knight may win the GOP base. But he will find it hard to compete with a President who knows – finally – what he stands for. Let's tax the rich is so much clearer than let's stay together.

"Democrats do best when they speak in specifics about issues like the environment, health care and social welfare," New York University political scientist Patrick Egan said. "Republicans do best when they speak in abstracts about 'free enterprise.' "

Mr. Obama's unapologetically progressive speech dwelled heavily on specifics, providing concrete examples of how his proposals would help fashion "an economy that's built to last" – like those vehicles from the auto maker he bailed out.

Instead of backing away from the experience at Solyndra, the California solar-panel maker whose bankruptcy discredited his administration's efforts to subsidize alternative energy, Mr. Obama as much as told Republicans to bring it on.

"Some technologies don't pan out, some companies fail," Mr. Obama conceded. "But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy … I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here."

The same defiant tone characterized the President's call for immigration reform, tougher environmental standards and public investments in education, research, job training and manufacturing.

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"What he was talking about were very easy-to-understand and broadly popular proposals that could engage a wide swath of the American public," Prof. Egan explained.

The pièce de résistance of the "fair shot" package Mr. Obama unveiled on Tuesday is the so-called Buffet Rule, his proposal to require Americans earning more than $1-million to pay at least 30 per cent of their income in taxes.

For the uber-rich like Mr. Romney, who live off their investments, the change would amount to a doubling of their annual tax bill. It would reverse a 30-year trend that has seen taxes on capital gains slashed to 15 per cent from 28 per cent under Ronald Reagan.

If Mr. Obama sought to pick a fight, which seems likely, he got his way. Taking up the mantle of the 99-per-centers and Occupy movement may seem like pandering to the progressive base of his party, but it does provide him with a clarity of purpose he lacked.

"It's designed to come at me if I'm the [GOP]nominee," Mr. Romney said Wednesday in an interview on CNBC. "If I happen not to be the nominee, he'll still take the 99-versus-1 attack. He's really trying to divide America."

That was tame in comparison to Mr. Gingrich's take on the President's speech, which he dismissed as "left-wing demagoguery." The ex-Speaker, who has emerged as the populist alternative of the right, is raring to go up against a populist President of the left.

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"I'm not sure the President understood but if he actually meant what he said it would be a disaster of the first order," Mr. Gingrich said of the President's tax plan. "It would lead to a dramatic decline in the stock market. … It would drive capital out of the United States. It would be the most anti-job step we could take."

As he takes his "fair shot" dog-and-pony show on the road this week, not coincidentally to four swing states he must win in November, Mr. Obama is finished with the olive-branch approach to Republicans.

"Their philosophy, what there is of it, seems to be pretty simple: We're better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves," the President said in Iowa on Wednesday. "I'm here to say they're wrong. We're not going back to an economy weakened by outsourcing and bad debt and phony financial profits."

There is a major advantage for Mr. Obama in playing the class card. It diverts attention from his record. By making the election a choice between a brighter "fair shot" future for all and the "you're-on-your-own" economics offered by Republicans, the President might get voters to look past his decidedly mixed domestic record.

But there are risks, too, in pitting rich against poor in a society that prefers to see itself, in the words of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, as a "nation of haves and soon-to-haves."

Mr. Daniels, about whom many Republicans are still fantasizing as their 2012 white knight, delivered the official GOP response to Mr. Obama's speech. He warned that a "government as big and bossy as this one" empties middle-class pockets. He described "the extremism that cancels a perfectly safe pipeline" as "a pro-poverty policy."

Mr. Obama has been left with no choice. He cannot join with Republicans, so he must beat them.

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