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Post Partisan
Posted at 10:15 AM ET, 01/25/2012

Obama’s lunch-pail liberalism

It is a hazardous thing to be an illustration in an Obama State of the Union address. Last year, the president described a “Sputnik moment” and called for national daring equal to the space program — while dramatically reducing the ambitions of the space program. This year, he called for American politics to reflect the unity and can-do spirit of the military — while pursuing large and damaging cuts in the military.

Usually, government departments fight for a mention in the State of the Union. If Obama is reelected, it might be better to lay low next year.

Obama’s reelection was the unifying theme of last night’s speech — which is hardly unprecedented for this stage of any presidency. Obama has a serious political challenge among white blue-collar voters. His agenda was mainly tailored to their concerns. He headlined his economic plan with an emphasis on manufacturing jobs, attacking outsourcing and touting the return of the auto industry. It was the presidential version of Chrysler’s “Imported From Detroit” advertising campaign.

Obama embraced patriotic military values, generally de-emphasized liberal social issues, attacked unfair trade practices, promised new contracts for the construction industry (another Hoover Dam?) and sounded populist themes against Wall Street and the wealthy. There were a few exceptions to this general approach, such as support for the Dream Act. But for most of the evening, Obama offered lunch-pail liberalism — the vision of an economy with plenty of stable, middle class manufacturing jobs, created and defended by a benevolent federal government.

This ideal has almost no relationship to current economic realities. But embracing it is has been the main recommendation of Democratic pollsters and political advisers for a few decades now. Last night, Obama adapted a little Bill Clinton circa 1992: “If you work hard and play by the rules, you ought to have a decent life.” He added a little Al Gore from 2000: “The people versus the powerful.” Stan Greenberg, the great advocate of reclaiming Reagan Democrats as Democrats, can only be pleased.

The president is now conducting his campaign with all the standard plays of the Democratic playbook. He is embracing liberal populism, attacking Hill Republicans, praying for a weak presidential opponent and hoping for the economy to move in the right direction.

This political approach is familiar, but it may be effective. It has only required Obama to leave behind all pretense of originality, hope or change.

The main problem with Obama’s strategy is its obvious disconnect from actual economic challenges. Would a few, relatively minor subsidies, tax credits and regulatory challenges — even if passed — make a difference in promoting long-term economic growth? Unlikely.

Would President Obama, if reelected, have a mandate to deal with a debt and entitlement crisis that has already undermined the credit of the country and will eventually overwhelm all other economic challenges? He hasn’t asked for that mandate. Obama is correctly focusing on the economy. But his economic agenda had little ambition or sense of urgency. He tends his political garden while the house behind him burns. He brings a watering pail to a four-alarm fire.

By  |  10:15 AM ET, 01/25/2012

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