President Barack Obama delivered a populist, forward-looking speech to the nation Tuesday night that recalled the energy and oratory that propelled him to the White House four years ago. He defended his efforts to revive the economy, blamed an obstructionist Congress for gridlock in Washington and embraced the American values of common purpose, shared responsibility and equal opportunity. It was a powerful performance by a president who for too long has allowed Republicans to control the political narrative.
Make no mistake. This was more a state of the 2012 campaign than a State of the Union address. The contrasts between Obama and the Republicans could not be sharper, particularly for Floridians who listened to the Republican candidates for president debate in Tampa. The Democratic president renewed his support for sensible reforms on tax policy, immigration and renewable energy - all areas where Congress has refused to budge. He talked of tax fairness, regulation that protects consumers, and an inclusiveness for Americans of all incomes and backgrounds. That isn't socialism, and it doesn't describe a "European-style welfare state'' as Mitt Romney hyperventilated on Tuesday in Florida. Those are themes that independent, middle-class voters should find more compelling in November than the Republican mantra of tax cuts for all, lax regulation and immigration crackdowns.
"Let's never forget: Millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a government and a financial system that do the same,'' Obama said. "It's time to apply the same rules from top to bottom. No bailouts, no handouts and no copouts. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody.''
Of course, Republicans hold Obama entirely responsible for the painfully slow recovery from an economic recession that he inherited. The unemployment rate is gradually dropping, and Florida's real estate market is on a slow upswing. Obama's challenge is convincing voters the worst is over and that his vision is more likely to create an economy that will continue adding jobs. It will be a tough sell to a discouraged electorate fed up with Washington, but not an impossible one.
The president announced a number steps he will take on his own, from a new effort to investigate unfair trade practices to a crackdown on fraud and unfair lending practices. He offered the usual menu of specific legislative proposals such as renewing his call for tax increases on the wealthy as part of a deficit reduction effort, incentives to build new roads and other projects, and help for homeowners to refinance their mortgages. The reality is that little is likely to get done this election year beyond an extension of existing payroll tax cuts. Tuesday night was more about Obama setting a campaign tone rather than a policy direction.
On that point, the president succeeded in an upbeat address that acknowledged the nation's economic challenges and offered a compelling way forward for middle-class taxpayers, homeowners, job seekers and college students. The Republican candidates have a different message in Florida this week, and it will be up to the voters to decide in the coming months between two sharply different visions on how to move forward.