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Posted at 1:00 PM ET, 01/24/2011

Obama's speech may seek to redefine the "center"

By Greg Sargent

There's been a ton of commentary to the effect that Obama's planned State of the Union address, which will stress the need for leaner and smarter government in order to foster "competitiveness," signals a move by Obama to the "center."

But judging from what we've heard so far, it seems more likely that Obama's speech will seek to redefine the "center" as something more in line with his own current policy approach and priorities. In short, all the talk about "competitiveness" is probably better seen as a rhetorical set up to another key aspect of his speech. I'm talking about the part where he will defend his health care plan and continue making the case for goverment "investment" -- a.k.a. government spending -- to bolster our long term prospects.

Yesterday's New York Times blared that Obama's speech will herald a "centrist angenda." But it also noted that Obama will "make the case for spending" on "education, transportation and technological innovation when it can be justified as essential to the nation's long-term prosperity."

As Paul Krugman speculated this morning, all the rhetorical gestures towards "competitiveness" are probably better seen "as a way to sell a much-needed increase in public investment to a public thoroughly indoctrinated in the view that government spending is a bad thing."

As it happens, there's precedent for this. When Bill Clinton famously declared that "the era of big government is over," this was mostly a rhetorical tactic designed to undercut the success of the Gingrich revolution and its successful demonization of government. As Joe Conason noted recently, even as Clinton distanced himself from "big government," he aggressively defended government spending to foster progress and cast himself as a staunch defender of popular "big government" programs.

There's reason to think Obama may do something similar tomorrow night. We are now hearing that Obama will not embrace the deficit commission's proposals to cut Social Security in his speech. And he's expected to call for deficit reduction in only general terms. As David Dayen puts it: "I'd say that the President calling for new investments and staying silent on the Bowles-Simpson cat food recommendations is pretty darn good, all things considered."

We don't know exactly what Obama will say, of course, and he could always embrace Social Security cuts later. But if Obama's new "centrist" agenda is about getting rid of unnecessary government regulation -- something no one supports to begin with -- to make us more competitive while supporting more government spending to invest in our future, his speech will be less about moving to the center than about redefining what we call the center.

*******************************************************

UPDATE, 1:23 p.m.: E.J. Dionne made a very similar case today, arguing that Obama needs to reshape perceptions of "moderation" and the "center" to his own ends.


By Greg Sargent  | January 24, 2011; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Health reform, Social Security, deficit  
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Comments

The major reason Obama is up a few points in the polls is because the democrats have been whining for last three months.

The democrats have been doing nothing but acting like cry-babies.


The smear campaign conducted against Sarah Palin and the Tea Party was nothing but the stuff of a third-world dictator - blaming one's political opponenst for a mass murder.


America deserves better.


America deserves way better than Obama and his rag-tag whining liberals.


.

Posted by: SunlightandLowTaxes | January 24, 2011 1:04 PM | Report abuse

If I had his ear I'd tell him to link recent good news about jobs and the economy to the framework his administration has put into place and now America will reap the rewards of a thriving economy.

He'll have the ear of millions and is in good standing with American's right now, even according to Raspublican polling.

Posted by: mikefromArlington | January 24, 2011 1:06 PM | Report abuse

The rhetoric matters, too. When Obama runs like a frightened child from being called liberal -- just like Clinton did -- the battle is effectively over. All the GOP has to do is declare something liberal and it is effectively dead (e.g., public option). And if you think that the GOP doesn't understand the power that gives them, well you don't know Mitch McConnell very well. In theory, could Obama do what you suggest and re-define the Center. Yes, in theory, but he hasn't managed it yet and so long as he wets his pants every time a Conservative calls him or his policies Liberal it is hopeless. Those who think the rhetorical battles are meaningless simply aren't paying attention. In order to succeed, Obama has to clear space to act on his Left. But the GOP has him cornered and Obama does not have the courage to bust out by taking on the Hard Right the way he has no problem bashing the Left. Instead, Obama will cower and triangulate and do whatever increases his own popularity which, since he has surrendered to the Right, will be determined solely by what the Right is willing to let him have by way of "bi-partisanship" (and the price for the Right's "bi-partsianship" goes up every minute that Obama fails to challenge the Right Wing mythology that is ruining the country.

Posted by: wbgonne | January 24, 2011 1:14 PM | Report abuse

OK Greg, now you are going to try to "nuance" the word "center."


Greg writes:
"Obama's speech will seek to redefine the "center" as something more in line with his own current policy approach and priorities."


This is fantasyland - the wish that the liberals have that everyone agrees with them. The truth is that liberalism is dead. Liberalism has been rejected by the country.

Obama has made serious mistakes. However, his arrogance is what really hurts him time and time again.

No one cares what Obama thinks anymore. We know what Obama thinks. Obama thinks that he will Deceive and Lie to the country, gain the votes, and then go off and do whatever he wants. The nation is onto this Fool Obama. Obama has destroyed his own majority in Congress - and the time is soon coming when Obama will be voted out and the Senate will be firmly in the hands of the Republicans.

The Republicans would have control of the Senate now - except for the cycles of the Senate terms are causing democrats to "hang-on" when they would have surely been defeated had their election been last year.

The American People can not WAIT to see Obama pack up his things and go back to Hyde Park where he belongs - in a liberal haven surrounded by slums. The people of the slums can then ask Obama WHAT he did for the inner cities while he was in office and Obama will say NOTHING.

Posted by: SunlightandLowTaxes | January 24, 2011 1:17 PM | Report abuse

@Greg

I think you're missing one key aspect. It's not "redefining the center", it's "redefining the center FOR DC".

Pres. Obama's policies so far have been pretty centrist and moderate, in terms of public opinion. Most of what he's done, once fully explained to someone, is seen as even handed and paced. Not far-leftist or radical. There's been strong foundation shifting, sure, but it hasn't been more long-view stuff than quick shifts in direction.

The issue isn't about the President redefining the center according to what voters support. He's already there. It's about redefining the center according to how DC operates and how the corporate media reports. He's pulling the idealogical center of public opinion, and repackaging it for the DC elites.

Posted by: TheBBQChickenMadness | January 24, 2011 1:17 PM | Report abuse

So, if Obama is soaring in the polls come election time and drives millions to the polls, won't that result in massive coat tails like in the 2008 election?

Just sayin...

Posted by: mikefromArlington | January 24, 2011 1:19 PM | Report abuse

BREAKING NEWS

Rahm Emanuel and his Fannie Mae resume has been THROWN OFF the ballot by an Appelate Court in Illinois.

Illinois Supreme Court is next.


.

Posted by: SunlightandLowTaxes | January 24, 2011 1:21 PM | Report abuse

President Obama makes nice speeches like the one in Tuscon when no follow up action is required.

He has been much less effective in speeches that are advocating taking some action.

President Obama truly has been all talk and no action.

Posted by: jfv123 | January 24, 2011 1:25 PM | Report abuse

"His speech will be less about moving to the center than about redefining what we call the center."

This just sounds like so much baloney! We want straight talk not jibber jabber about "redefining the center."

Posted by: sbj3 | January 24, 2011 1:27 PM | Report abuse

"Posted by: SunlightandLowTaxes | January 24, 2011 1:04 PM "


Yet another pseudonym for our old pal. Welcome back, 37th & O!

.

Posted by: bsimon1 | January 24, 2011 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Riiiight... no action. That's the pot calling the kettle black. And Sunlight, you don't speak for me, so stop acting as if "The American People" want what you want. Just because the Republicans won a number of seats in the house doesn't mean too much outside of, "the economy stinks, and lets vote out the bums in power." I don't hear from too many conservatives how their (non-existent) plans are going to help this country out of the mess they got us in in the first place. Remember the surplus we used to have? Where did it go? Oh right, now I remember the Bush years... But it's okay, the free market will get us where we need to go! Ha ha, good one!

Posted by: dug2008 | January 24, 2011 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Bsimon

It's not the meat, it's the motion.


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Posted by: SunlightandLowTaxes | January 24, 2011 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Obama's teleprompter does not have the power to redefine the center.

Sorry, the Lightgiver has dimmed, rhetoric will not boost the wattage.

Posted by: tao9 | January 24, 2011 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Sounds like Obama has given up on "changing the trajectory of the country" as Ronald Reagan did.

Posted by: jnc4p | January 24, 2011 1:59 PM | Report abuse

WHAT do you mean you didn't see this coming. Rahm is NOT a resident of Chicago for one year as required by law.

Everyone was HOPING the Courts would be HONEST.


It is a simple question of HONESTY - so you are trying to say that all the Judges are DISHONEST???


Seriously, man.


NOW, the Illinois Supreme Court - ALL they have to do is DECLINE THE CASE. By the way, Rahm's wife and children ARE STILL IN WASHINGTON - so how can he EVEN NOW be considered a resident of Chicago if his family is in Washington. YOU LIVE WHERE YOUR FAMILY IS.


.

Posted by: SunlightandLowTaxes | January 24, 2011 2:00 PM | Report abuse

tao,

I wouldn't be that confident. Even Rassmussen has Obama over 50....currently, 52-47.

Posted by: suekzoo1 | January 24, 2011 2:03 PM | Report abuse

God I'm tired of Firedoglake. I know they mean well but the "cat food" thing? Not helpful. That kind of rhetoric helps the right-wing PR machine tar even serious, pragmatic and level-headed lefties as a bunch of hot-headed brats.

Posted by: CalD | January 24, 2011 2:18 PM | Report abuse

The rhetoric from our resident Right wing posters here seems to fall on a continuum something like this: when Obama is down in the polls its more of a mocking nature, when he's up in the polls, they get more strident in their silliness.

Posted by: ChuckinDenton | January 24, 2011 2:21 PM | Report abuse

"President Obama has decided not to endorse his deficit commission's recommendation to raise the retirement age, and otherwise reduce Social Security benefits, in Tuesday's State of the Union address, cheering liberals and drawing a stark line between the White House and key Republicans in Congress. "

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/24/AR2011012403472.html?hpid=topnews

Posted by: jnc4p | January 24, 2011 2:22 PM | Report abuse

@CalD: Haven't seen you around for a while! Have I? It's been a while since there have been any Ground Zero Mosque posts . . . :P

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 24, 2011 2:24 PM | Report abuse

The diatribe that has been offered up by seemingly reputable sources looks, sounds and feels like it came straight out of the GOP/Cluster-Fox loon truck that is normally parked directly across from the Capitol building in DC.. Just a constant stream of garbage - all day...

My three-year-old could have written this better... Propaganda at best... paper to be used in bird cages later today at worst... trash either way.

Posted by: rbaldwin2 | January 24, 2011 2:25 PM | Report abuse

Greg writes, talking about EJ Dionne:

"Obama needs to reshape perceptions of "moderation" and the "center" to his own ends."


Ouch

______________________

More Bait and Switch

More Deceptions

More lies


Clinton was a DLC moderate before he went left, and then to the center. Clinton's whole movement was more credible.


Obama could turn into a full-blown Communist at any moment, for all we know - that would be FAR MORE CREDIBLE than Obama the moderate, right?


.

Posted by: SunlightandLowTaxes | January 24, 2011 2:25 PM | Report abuse

I am dismayed that, after an election where the Democratic base was dispirited, disillusioned and disrespected by the Party Elites, that they would breathe any life at all into weakening Social Security.

Hopefully, all those reports are wrong but the Catfood Commission gives us plenty of reason to worry.

Posted by: ANDYO1 | January 24, 2011 2:32 PM | Report abuse

@jnc4p Thanks for that link!

Now can anybody explain this sentence to me from jnc4p's linked story....

"but that he will not call for reducing spending on Social Security - the single largest federal program - as part of that effort."

Let me guess...we don't call anything related to defense a "program" is that it?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_federal_budget

Even just the part that is ON budget for defense represents 3% more of our budget than SS. Now toss in the fact that we have/are fighting two wars off budget with supplementals and you find that defense spending is actually closer to 50% of our tax dollars not 25%

http://www.warresisters.org/pages/piechart.htm

Many posters from the left have ridden the Pres pretty hard for what they see as his lack of accomplishment. I am reticent to pile on....but...and here is where tomorrow night's SOTU could comfort me..

Nobody has said squat in their speculation about Afghanistan/Iraq. I want to know why we are arguing about OUR infrastructure (nobody denies all the horrible deferred maintainence..just what to do about it) when we are dumping billions down the rathole to provide better infrastructure for Iraq/Afghanistan. Yeah call me selfish.
I'm tired of wasting money on killing people...and guess what I'M NOT ALONE.

http://www.langerresearch.com/uploads/1119a6%20Afghanistan.pdf

That's right. There are now TWO of us against the war for every ONE of the supporters. Can Obama really turn a 2-1 advantage into yet another concession to the moronic neocons who have destroyed so much of our nation already.

Afghanistan..Mr. President! What say ye?

Posted by: rukidding7 | January 24, 2011 2:42 PM | Report abuse

All, check out the GOP's strategy for the fight over repeal:

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/plum-line/2011/01/gop_strategy_force_dems_to_vot.html

Posted by: Greg Sargent | January 24, 2011 2:44 PM | Report abuse

@rukidding7 "Now can anybody explain this sentence to me from jnc4p's linked story....

"but that he will not call for reducing spending on Social Security - the single largest federal program - as part of that effort."

Let me guess...we don't call anything related to defense a "program" is that it?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_federal_budget

Even just the part that is ON budget for defense represents 3% more of our budget than SS. Now toss in the fact that we have/are fighting two wars off budget with supplementals and you find that defense spending is actually closer to 50% of our tax dollars not 25%"

Two points:

1. The Wikipedia article has the numbers from the FY2009 budget, but I believe with the recent changes Secretary Gates made to defense spending as part of the FY2010 budget, it may actually be lower than Social Security now (although not by much).

2. I believe Obama put all the war costs on budget starting with his first budget for FY2010.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_United_States_federal_budget

$977.95 billion (+4.9%) – Social Security

$963.7 billion (+12.7%) – Department of Defense (including Overseas Contingency Operations)

Posted by: jnc4p | January 24, 2011 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Reviewing the numbers, it looks like the largest expense now is Medicare/Medicaid, followed by Social Security, then Defense.

They are all roughly 20% each though:

Medicare/Medicaid: 20.98%
Social Security: 19.63%
Department of Defense: 18.74%

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_United_States_federal_budget

Posted by: jnc4p | January 24, 2011 3:01 PM | Report abuse

@jnc4p Appreciate your attempt at an answer and definitely the links to back your claims....but of course what constitutes defense? Are you including the Dept.of Homeland Security., The VA. all the costs associated with our "defense"?

Have you read how the costs of these two wars are grossly understated not just because of going off budget, supplementals and other such chicanery.

http://www.amazon.com/Three-Trillion-Dollar-War-Conflict/dp/0393067017

You can read a snippet there at Amazon of the book by Stigletz and Bilmes titled
The Three Trillion Dollar War.
The True Cost of Iraq

The example of the First Gulf War in 1991 serves as a great look at our future re these "off budget" wars.

More than 16 years after a War, tiny in comparison to Iraqui Freedom, less than two months in length...very little ground fighting...still more than 16 years later the U.S. was spending 4.3 BILLION annually on compensation, pension and disability benefits. Can you even imagine what Iraq/Afghanistan are going to cost 16 years from now. These authors actually did the research and came up with what they believe a very, very conservative figure...3 TRILLION $ 3 TRILLION $

If we pulled out every last soldier from Iraq and Afghanistan tomorrow...the costs will still continue to rise dramatically as the VA begins to treat the results from our military adventures. And I hate to even use the term "results"...how about reality here...as the V.A. begins to attempt to care for the many brave men and women who got their bodies, minds, and souls chewed up while we all sat back here on our fat rumps and yelled "Bring it on." Bring it on indeed. Hope our rush of testosterone is worth all those broken limbs, hearts, and minds.

Posted by: rukidding7 | January 24, 2011 3:43 PM | Report abuse

@rukidding7 "jnc4p Appreciate your attempt at an answer and definitely the links to back your claims....but of course what constitutes defense? Are you including the Dept.of Homeland Security., The VA. all the costs associated with our "defense"?

Have you read how the costs of these two wars are grossly understated not just because of going off budget, supplementals and other such chicanery."

According to the chart linked in the Wikipedia article:

Department of Homeland Security - 1.34% for FY2010
Department of Veterans Affairs - 1.48%

After Social Security and Defense, the next highest percentage is "Unemployment/Welfare/Other Mandatory spending" at 16.13%

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fy2010_spending_by_category.jpg

From what I can tell, starting with President Obama's first budget in FY2010 all the war costs are now on budget. I think you are still railing against the Bush budgets from FY2009 and earlier rather than what is actually going on in the Obama administration, however at no time did Defense/Homeland security ever approach 50% of the whole Federal budget. Any analysis that stated that probably excluded mandatory entitlement spending and only compared Defense/Homeland Security to other "discretionary" spending.

More fundamentally, if you going to truly tackle the deficit you have to hit everything and gore everyone's political oxen all at once. Preemptively ruling Social Security cuts off the table, especially after going through the whole exercise of the deficit commission is basically ruling out the entire idea of deficit reduction in the short term. Which may be Obama's point, however he risks ceding the entire enterprise to the Republicans, especially Rep. Paul Ryan.

The State of the Union rebuttal will practically write itself now:

"The President is rejecting any attempt to curb entitlement spending to reign in the out of control Federal budget deficits, including the plan that his own deficit commission proposed and that was endorsed by Democratic Senators such as Dick Durbin"

Posted by: jnc4p | January 24, 2011 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Since the day Obama arrived on the scene, he has used his rhetorical skills to place himself all over the political map. But his actions are consistent, grow government and diminish the private sector. Place spending ahead of deficit reduction. This speech will apparently be more of the same.

Posted by: doug7772 | January 24, 2011 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Since the day Obama arrived on the scene, he has used his rhetorical skills to place himself all over the political map. But his actions are consistent, grow government and diminish the private sector. Place spending ahead of deficit reduction. This speech will apparently be more of the same.

Posted by: doug7772 | January 24, 2011 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Where on the scale does one place the Democratic Progressive Union Socialist Marxist Communist Party? Does it have a center? There are more people leaving the Democratic Party than at any time in history. Maybe they should change to the Progressive Union Socialist Marxist Communist Party so that people will know what they are voting for.

Posted by: Bubbette1 | January 24, 2011 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Internet trolls are weird.
Must be a weird life, constantly scanning a number of blogs with the intent to immediately type in the first comment, in highly inflammatory rhetoric, solely with the intent of derailing any intelligent conversation.
What a pathetic way to spend one's day.

Posted by: rick_desper | January 24, 2011 5:15 PM | Report abuse

Obama and the Left have already redefined the center. According to them, the center is way off to the left.

Posted by: HeywoodJabuzov | January 24, 2011 9:42 PM | Report abuse

Obama and the far left have already redined the center. And according to them, the center is somewhere way off to the left.

Posted by: HeywoodJabuzov | January 24, 2011 9:49 PM | Report abuse

I can not believe there is one sensible person in this country that believes him! It's like his cutting regulations. Read the fine print, he will keep the regulation if it "promotes social justice" and "equity". How is that for criteria?

Posted by: Shirl1 | January 25, 2011 10:05 AM | Report abuse

I can not believe there is one sensible person in this country that believes him! It's like his cutting regulations. Read the fine print, he will keep the regulation if it "promotes social justice" and "equity". How is that for criteria?

Posted by: Shirl1 | January 25, 2011 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Before the internet a politician could "re-invent" them self.....

Obama ran on a blank slate, he is a known commodity now

No way he can change his spots.....it's the 21st century

From Post-racial to racist (New Black Panthers & beer summit)

From "moderate" to hard left

That is his record...he is stuck being Obama the antiAmerican redistributionist extreme left liberal.

Perhaps Rev Wright and Bill Ayers can vouch for Obama in 2012

Posted by: georgedixon1 | January 25, 2011 10:07 AM | Report abuse

Oh Greg, GROW UP! Everybody has had two years to see for themselves what Obama is. Do you really think that by having his claque, you amongst them, start insisting that he is suddenly something very different is going to fool anybody?

Get real! :-/

Posted by: plaasjaapie | January 25, 2011 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Oh, please!

Young Greg and Obama should have a bowing contest to see who can grovel the best.

I'd pay to see it.

Posted by: tom75 | January 25, 2011 11:24 AM | Report abuse

To rick_desper and his "troll" fetish.

Internet trolls such as yourself? The amazing thing about liberals is their ability to self-deceive. You write an excoriating comment about how awful the excoriating comments are made by others here. How does that make sense, even in the cloudy and dense confines of the liberal universe?

Try Bret Stephens' ode to the tradition of all-American, rough & tumble, Wild West back and forth dialoging--minus a liberal pinkie extending gracefully from a tea cup--in his "appreciation" of the late great Keith Olbermann.
http://online.wsj.com/article/global_view.html
Sadly, to read it, you'll have to scroll down quite a ways, but it's a healthy corrective to all this lame "civility" crap being disingenuously peddled by liberals who are actually using faux civility as an excuse for being way uncivil.


Posted by: tom75 | January 25, 2011 11:39 AM | Report abuse

The problem with Obama talking about fiscal restraint is the same problem Clinton would have if he advocated limiting sex to between married partners; only the incredulous would believe.

Not impossible, but unlikely. Its the same problem as Gov Brown has in CA. There are huge huge huge cuts in entitlement programs that are coming, is Obama going to take the initiative, or have the cuts imposed on him?

Posted by: pashley1411 | January 25, 2011 2:57 PM | Report abuse

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