After seeing his poll numbers hit record low marks last year, President Obama and his team of advisers adopted a more aggressive public posture towards Republican opposition, as well as a born-again populist agenda around the theme of economic justice that appeared front and center during the President's State of the Union address.
The Fighting Obama has been rewarded politically. Democrats feel more energized now than at any time since the 2008 election. The GOP, currently embodied by its four presidential candidates, has been unable to come up with a compelling alternative to Mr. Obama's platform to convince middle class Americans that they have their interests at heart. Whereas Obama 1.0 (Obama-the-Uniter) may have ignored GOP accusations of 'socialism' and 'class warfare', the Fighting Obama has hit back hard and effectively. The President's current approval rating of 46.5 percent is a considerable improvement from the low 40s of late 2011 - especially considering that unemployment is still above 8 percent.
While the President's team is justifiably bullish about his newfound buoyancy, it is unfortunate that Obama-the-Uniter was not received better by the public. Economic justice is a very real issue in America, but the Buffett Rule will not be the defining moment of our time.
Real Politik believes that the very wealthy do need to pay more taxes and that the short-term fiscal stimulus advocated by the White House is sensible. However, the Fighting Obama has focused attention on election-year populism instead of providing the type of farsighted leadership America needs to thrive in the 21st century. Namely, reforming entitlements, putting our long-term fiscal house in order and investing heavily in our public education system.
The Republicans are quick to overstate the immediate impact of the U.S. deficit. For all the bluster, most conservative economists can recognize that America is a long way from the PIGS - Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. Despite the abuse that Ben Bernanke has taken during the GOP primaries, even Ron Paul should appreciate the virtues of independent monetary policy and the dollar's status as the world's currency reserve. Yet, the GOP is not wrong to point out that the American welfare system is unsustainable over the long haul due to an aging population and rising healthcare costs.
Obama-the-Uniter was willing to make a Grand Bargain with House Speaker, John Boehner, before Tea Party freshman scuttled the deal because the compromise included (gasp) tax increases in addition to spending cuts to balance the budget. In a better world, Obama-the-Uniter should have been applauded for having he gumption to put everything on the table - including medicare, medicaid and social security. A Grand Bargain that maintains the safety net for the next generation would be a great legacy for the President and far more important than anything we decide to do in terms of taxing the 1 percent. It would also lay the table for Mr. Obama to spend money and political capital on wise investments like improving public education, investing in clean energy technology and championing comprehensive immigration reform.
Unfortunately, in contemporary American politics no good deed goes unpunished. Obama-the-Uniter was rewarded for his pragmatism by being labeled as a socialist by the Right and and sellout by the Left. So instead of tackling big issues with his recent State of the Union address, the Fighting Obama proposed investigations of Chinese trade imbalances and tax credits for insourcing. Whether one supports or opposes this agenda, it is disappointing that the President was not able to tackle bigger issues.
Yet, hope remains. After all, this was an election year State of the Union address - poll numbers often come before policy. Perhaps the President will rediscover his inner pragmatist if he wins another term. For all of the Fighting Obama's faults - he may be the best shot for Change We Can Believe In.
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