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Professor discusses President’s speech

Sara Felsenstein | Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Political Science professor David Campbell said President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday was clear evidence the president is “moving into campaign mode.”

“This is not what we saw in the first year or two of the Obama administration,” Campbell said. “This is Obama making an argument for his reelection and for his Democratic view of the way government ought to be involved in the economy.”

Campbell, who is also the founding director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy,said the speech had the usual constraints of a State of the Union address. Obama had to cite major issues, remain optimistic and appeal to his constituencies.

“This was a pretty sprawling and expansive speech. It was also a fairly long speech,” he said. “I do think his speech can be contrasted with last year’s speech, in that this one really marks the beginning of the 2012 presidential campaign.”

Campbell said that unlike past years, Obama took a clear stance on issues and pointed out the congressional obstruction of governmental goals.

“Barack Obama was elected on the terms that he would be a post-partisan president. He tried … but he’s not going to do that anymore. He’s going to [draw] sharp distinctions,” Campbell said.

Obama was also more direct in this speech than he had been in the past, Campbell said.

“He’s definitely beginning to lay out his argument. He was quite explicit. [For example] he did want to see government investing in clean energy,” Campbell said.

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana delivered the GOP rebuttal to the State of the Union on Tuesday, responding specifically to Obama’s position on the income gap and criticizing the president for being overly optimistic in his assessment of the country’s economic well-being.

“When President Obama claims that the state of our union is anything but grave,” Daniels said, “he must know in his heart that this is not true.”

Campbell said Obama and Daniels’ speeches plainly put issues on the table and gave voters the opportunity to decide on those issues for themselves.

“I thought the State of the Union address and the response from Mitch Daniels was politics the way it ought to be done,” Campbell said. “Voters heard two different perspectives on what government should be doing. In all seriousness, I thought voters could walk away from those two speeches having learned something.”

Campbell said the annual addresses are challenging for presidents because they must hold firmly to some key American ideas.

“Presidents have to pick their language carefully. They all have to say the state of the union is fundamentally strong, moving forward,” Campbell said. “[President Obama] struck a tone of, ‘Things have been bad, they’re getting better and they’re better than most people think.'”

Campbell also said the U.S. president is in a unique position since he is both the head of state and the head of government — a tension that comes to the surface in the State of the Union.

He said in some ways, the president plays a similar role to a figure like the Queen of England since he is the face of the American people.

And Americans are an “optimistic people” who don’t like “doom and gloom,” Campbell said.

Still, Republican candidate Mitt Romney used Obama’s optimism as ammunition when he told voters in Florida on Wednesday the speech was “detached from reality.”

Campbell said such statements are not unusual from the Republican opposition.

“That’s a common argument not just from Romney, but from other Republicans, that [Obama’s] is an administration that doesn’t understand the way America works,” Campbell said. “There’s [always] this undercurrent … in the Republican criticism of Obama.”

Campbell said Obama’s call to narrow the income gap is another major dividing point between the two parties.

“What the Republicans want to emphasize is a nation where everyone feels like they can get ahead,” Campbell said. “The Democrats will want to emphasize this is a country where we help those who have been left behind … [They] want to equalize things, make sure everyone has a fair shot.”

If the Republican Party nominates Romney as its presidential candidate, Campbell said the issue of America’s income gap will play a dominant role.

As Obama enters the election year, Campbell said the country’s unemployment rate will be his biggest challenge to reelection.

“The very top of the list is the economy … The president is facing a very high unemployment rate that doesn’t want to budge,” Campbell said. “Jobs are coming back, but it’s still very high and, frankly, everything else will be subsumed under a debate on the economy.”