ANY lingering doubts about Barack Obama’s determination to appropriate Ronald Reagan’s political spirit evaporated just before the State of the Union. No American brand is more associated with Reagan than General Electric, and it was that corporation’s chief executive, Jeffrey Immelt, who popped up as the president’s new wingman when the White House rolled out its latest jobs initiative on Jan. 21. Obama’s speech on Tuesday, with its celebration of the nation’s can-do capitalist ingenuity, moved him still closer to Reagan’s sweet spot as a national cheerleader. The president even offered a remix of the old Reagan-era G.E. jingle “We bring good things to life” — now traded up to the grander “We do big things.”
Obama’s rhetorical Morning in America is exquisitely timed to coincide with the Gipper’s centennial — and, of course, the unacknowledged start of his own 2012 re-election campaign. It’s remarkable how completely the G.O.P. has ceded the optimism of its patron saint to the president just as the country prepares for a deluge of Reaganiana. Obama’s post-New Year’s surge past a 50 percent approval rating — well ahead of both Reagan’s and Bill Clinton’s comeback trajectories after their respective midterm shellackings — may have only just begun.
There was no drama to Obama’s address — just a unifying theme, at long last, as he reasserted the role of government in rebooting and rebuilding the country for a new century and putting Americans back to work. The president wisely left any theatrics to his adversaries, and, as always, they were happy to oblige.
This time we were spared a “You lie!” But once Obama segued into a rambling laundry list and the “prom night” bipartisan photo ops lost their comic novelty, the night’s storyline inevitably shifted to the reliable diva antics of Michele Bachmann, the founder of the House’s Tea Party Caucus. For all the Republican male establishment’s harrumphing, it couldn’t derail her plan to hijack the party’s designated State of the Union response with one of her own. More Katherine Harris than Sarah Palin, Bachmann is far more riveting television bait than Paul Ryan, the bland congressman officially assigned the Bobby Jindal memorial slot after the New Jersey governor Chris Christie was savvy enough to take a pass.
The G.O.P. grandees’ consternation was palpable. Earlier in the day Bachmann had dispatched an e-mail announcing that her speech would be carried live by Fox News. But when the time came, Fox relegated the live feed to its Web site, forcing viewers to scurry to CNN, of all places, and delaying its own television recap until after prime time in the East. Rupert Murdoch’s other major organ, The Wall Street Journal, toed the same line, burying Bachmann’s speech in a half-sentence in its print edition the next morning. By then, John Boehner, seconding the disdain of Eric Cantor, was telling reporters that he hadn’t watched Bachmann because of “other obligations.”
What were they all afraid of? The answer cuts to the crux of the right’s plight less than three months after its supposed restoration. Having sold itself in 2010 as the uncompromising champion of Tea Party-fueled fiscal austerity, the enhanced G.O.P. caucus arrived in Washington in 2011 to discover that most Americans prefer compromise to confrontation and favor balanced budgets in name only.
A CNN poll this month found that just one American in five regards deficit reduction as pressing enough to justify cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Only one in four would choose balancing the budget if it meant reducing education programs. Indeed, a new Gallup poll reveals that there’s exactly one category of government spending that a majority of voters favors slicing — foreign aid (which amounts to some 1 percent of the budget). Incredible as it sounds, even current government outlays to science, the arts, farmers and antipoverty programs still enjoy 50 percent-plus support.
Bachmann, like such other newly empowered Tea Party tribunes as Rand Paul and Jim DeMint, rattles G.O.P. leaders because she doesn’t pull punches in specifying how she would wield an ax. The only public opinion she cares about is that of her base. But as it turned out, Bachmann specified no cuts on Tuesday night, if only because she was too busy attacking Obama with unreconstructed pre-Tucson vitriol. In the end, her substance differed little from Ryan’s. She chastised government spending six times (vs. Ryan’s 13), and, like him, mentioned the twin federal money pits — Social Security and Medicare — not once. For a night anyway, these G.O.P. fiscal hawks were actually less forthright about entitlements than the Democratic president, who at least paid lip service to someday finding “a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security.”
This couldn’t last — and didn’t. Within 48 hours, other congressional Republicans were filling in some of the blanks left by Bachmann and Ryan, from privatizing Medicare to eliminating the government agency that regulates product safety. Perhaps the fresh crop of G.O.P. revolutionaries has been too busy revisiting 1776 to study the history of Newt Gingrich’s swaggering revolution of 1995. In January of that year, 49 percent of Americans approved and 22 percent opposed the incoming Republican Congress’s plans, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll at the time. But as soon as the plans’ details emerged, those numbers started to flip. By October 35 percent approved of G.O.P. policies and 45 percent did not. That was a month before the first of the two government shutdowns that put Clinton back on top.
But in 2011, it’s not just the revelation of cuts to specific popular programs that threatens to turn Americans against the Republican Congress. New polls show that Americans don’t even buy the principles behind these specifics. To hear the G.O.P. wail about it, you’d think the entire country was obsessed with the federal debt — cited 12 times in Ryan’s under-11-minute speech. But only 18 percent of Americans chose the deficit as a top priority for Washington in the most recent NBC/Journal survey and only 14 percent did in the New York Times/CBS News poll. Job creation was by far the top choice — at 43 percent (Times/CBS) and 34 percent (NBC/Journal).
Health care was a low-ranked priority too in those polls. And for all the right’s apocalyptic rants about the national horror of “Obamacare,” most polls continue to show that Americans are evenly divided about the law and that only a small minority favors its complete repeal (only one in four Americans in the latest Associated Press/GfK survey). The surest indicator that voters are not as inflamed about either the deficit or “Obamacare” as the right keeps claiming can be found in Karl Rove’s Wall Street Journal musings. To argue that Americans share his two obsessions, Rove now is reduced to citing polls from either Fox or a Brand X called Resurgent Republic, which he helpfully identifies as “a group I helped form.”
Obama must be laughing about how the party that spent a year hammering him for focusing on health care over jobs is now committing the same supposed sin. And one can only imagine his astonishment on Tuesday night, when the G.O.P. respondents to his speech each played Jimmy Carter to his Reagan by offering a grim double-feature of malaise and American decline. Hardly had the president extolled record corporate profits and a soaring stock market in his selectively rosy spin on the economy, than Ryan, who has the television manner of a solicitous funeral home director, was darkly warning that America could be the next Greece. Bachmann channeled Glenn Beck to argue that we are living in a nascent police state where government “tells us which light bulbs to buy” (G.E.’s, presumably).
The most revealing moment in either Republican response, though, came from Ryan, who, as chairman of the House Budget Committee, implicitly threatened another government shutdown, or catastrophic fiscal meltdown, if the House majority doesn’t get its way. “The president is now urging Congress to increase the debt limit,” he said with distaste, referring to the vote required possibly as soon as March to allow the Treasury to keep paying its bills. Should the House majority hold that vote hostage to its vision of the budget, it will throw the markets into turmoil and upend our still-embryonic recovery.
It tells you all you need to know about Ryan’s tilt to the right that, for all his professed disapproval of increasing the debt limit during an Obama administration, he voted to do so twice himself during the gushing deficits of the Bush years. Funny he didn’t mention that Tuesday night. It tells you all you need to know about the G.O.P.’s overall tilt to the right that not just the Tea Party is making barely veiled threats to play dangerous political games with the debt limit. Mitch McConnell and Cantor did so last weekend, as have a plethora of potential 2012 presidential candidates, from Tim Pawlenty to Gingrich. The Bachmann-Beck-Palin tail is now firmly wagging the Republican dog.
Like virtually every other week since the shellacking, the State of the Union week was another salutary one for Obama. But the state of the union itself could yet be in the hands of radicals whose eagerness to see the president fail is outstripped only by their zeal to make an ideological point, even if it forces America into default.