President Obama’s State of the Union address was premised on two political bets: that there’s a broad national appetite, spanning conservative and liberal ideologies, for certain populist reforms; and that Republicans in Congress are too deeply committed to opposing his agenda to back those reforms along side him.
His speech was peppered with the sorts of proposals that play well across the country. But after executing a three year plan of partisan opposition to his full agenda, Republicans can’t possibly support them — and that puts them on the steep side of an election Obama is framing while Republican presidential hopefuls tear each other down.
It was also sharp-elbowed. It read in a way as a series of critiques of the GOP’s most prominent rhetorical attacks on Democratic priorities, and as a piecemeal rebuttal of the talking points his most likely general election opponent Mitt Romney has levied against him in a bid to shore up support among Republican base voters.
That’s the battle for public perception that will play out over the next several months — between Obama’s calls for fairness and Republican reminders of people’s current woes, implicitly Obama’s fault they’ll say. If Republicans lose that battle they’ll find themselves flailing in the general election with nothing forward looking to offer voters. That’s the bet Obama made tonight.