In any incumbent election year, the State of the Union sets the tone for the impending battle. So on Tuesday night, President Obama devoted a big chunk of his speech to the "defining issue of our time": keeping the middle-class dream alive. (Last year's squabbles over social issues like DADT, DOMA, abortion, and birth control went unmentioned.)
He pulled on our heartstrings as he painted a picture of 1950s prosperity, then reminded us—as if he needed to—that this promise is in peril. Obama reiterated his position on taxing the rich, invoking the "Buffett rule" that states millionaires should pay at least 30 percent in taxes each year. "You can call it class warfare all you want," he said in a particularly feisty moment. "Most Americans would call that common sense."
In taking these positions, he took clear aim at his likely Republican opponent. As a lively national discussion continued over Mitt Romney's riches, Obama practically dubbed him "Wall Street" and the American people "the 99 percent." But he was doing something else, too. He was hearkening back to his trademark (and much-lambasted) "hope" rhetoric, striking a clear contrast between himself and the other Republican frontrunner: Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich's rise in the past few weeks has largely been due to, as political commentator Jay Smooth so eloquently put it, his "grumpy-ass magic." He boasts a strange combination of crankiness and charisma that appeals to the right's Tea Party-like distrust of a rapidly changing America. Some of Gingrich's recent statements are jaw-dropping. He's called Obama a "food stamp president." He remarked that child labor laws are "truly stupid," suggesting poor kids aspire to work as janitors at their high schools. When Juan Williams called them on these comments in the South Carolina debate, he doubled down to rapturous applause. While Mitt Romney remains robotic, Gingrich openly courts controversy—in fact, he calls that trait one of his biggest assets. Many incensed voters are identifying with him.
After the State of the Union, it's obvious Obama is taking the opposite route—as well as a cue from his 2008 formula. Despite our nation's dire problems, the State of the Union was oddly uplifting and positive. Obama took great pains to mention Republicans he agreed with, from Tom Coburn on tax subsidies to Abraham Lincoln on the role of government. Sandwiching the "class warfare" rhetoric were poetic statements about our servicemen and women who, unlike Congress, know how to work together as a team. They don't think about politics, he said. They don't think about themselves. "Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example," urged Obama. Sure, this was a dig at an ineffective Congress, but it was also a "screw you" to Newt's rage.
Everyone knows the push-and-pull, the ugliness, the Congressional inertia will pick up where it left off. Regardless, "Hope and Change: Redux" has officially begun. Obama has started off the campaign with his greatest weapon: a rousing, feel-good speech.