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Obama’s State of the Union speech: Confrontation wrapped in Kumbaya

at 10:46 PM ET, 01/24/2012

At first listen, President Obama’s State of the Union address had all the hallmarks of the sort of bipartisan, let’s-do-the-right-thing-for-America tone that characterized his 2008 presidential campaign.

But, listen closer and a more hard-edged, challenging tone reveals itself— a preview of what the incumbent will likely sound like as he seeks a second term this November.

“We’ve come too far to turn back now,” said Obama at one point. “As long as I’m President, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.”

Later, he offered an even more blunt challenge: “With or without this Congress, I will keep taking actions that help the economy grow.” He also repeatedly urged Congress to “send me a bill”, making clear that the ball, legislatively and politically, was in their court.

Even in his tone — a forceful and energetic delivery — made clear that Obama had a simple message for Republicans: Game on.

The State of the Union speech then was in keeping with the rhetoric coming out of this president and this White House dating back to the payroll tax cut extension fight late last year.

It seems as thought the debt-ceiling fight, which Obama described as a “fiasco”in his address tonight, convinced him once and for all that the only way to effectively deal with Republicans was show them that he was willing to talk tougher and push harder than they were.

It worked in the payroll tax cut fight as Republicans folded after it became clear that their attempt to pass a longer-term extension was doomed. (Obama made special mention of the payroll tax in the State of the Union; “Let’s agree right here, right now: No side issues. No drama. Pass the payroll tax cut without delay,” he said.)

And Obama’s poll numbers have increased in parallel with his willingness to stare down congressional Republicans. His favorable rating in a Washington Post poll in the field last week had jumped to 53 percent — including 51 percent with the electorally critical independents.

Given the success of his rhetorical pivot, it’s no surprise that President Obama largely stuck to it during the State of the Union. While this was not the same speech he would give to a group of Democratic activists and donors, it was also far from the ideals-only addresses that he delivered with regularity on the campaign trail in 2008.

This is Obama version 2.0: Harder, more cynical but perhaps also more effective. This is the Obama that will run for a second term this November — an Obama ready to give at least as good as he gets in the bare-knuckled brawl that is American politics.

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