Analysis: Obama Miniseries Enters Part Two

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In many ways, President Obama's quasi-State of the Union address Tuesday night to a joint session of Congress felt like part two in the multi-part miniseries that is the Obama administration.

Following part one, his inaugural address, Mr. Obama recapped his themes from that speech – hope, responsibility and patience with him as he deals with the challenges facing the country – and added another layer: some details to go with those themes.

On Jan. 20, he said, "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility."

Tonight: "What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more."

Last month, the newly sworn-in president said, "Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met."

Tonight: "[W]hile our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken; though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before."

Mr. Obama then offered a few details about his agenda moving forward. He laid out his vision for creating jobs, reforming health care, energy independence, helping homeowners and banks, education reform, Social Security and Medicare reform, foreign policy and his upcoming budget.

"In the next few days, I will submit a budget to Congress," he said regarding the blueprint he will send over on Thursday. "So often, we have come to view these documents as simply numbers on a page or laundry lists of programs. I see this document differently. I see it as a vision for America – as a blueprint for our future."

"In this budget, we will end education programs that don't work and end direct payments to large agribusinesses that don't need them," he added. "We'll eliminate the no-bid contracts that have wasted billions in Iraq, and reform our defense budget so that we're not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don't use. We will root out the waste, fraud, and abuse in our Medicare program that doesn't make our seniors any healthier, and we will restore a sense of fairness and balance to our tax code by finally ending the tax breaks for corporations that ship our jobs overseas."

Coming into tonight's speech, President Obama found himself enjoying a 63 percent approval rating, according to yesterday's CBS News/New York Times poll. But he also found himself at a point where the decisions he makes now will ripple through next year's midterm elections and even until it's time for him to run for re-election in three years.

At the risk of sounding too cynical, it's easy to forget that, yes, while speeches like tonight's are partially designed to announce how the president will deal with the problems and crises facing the country, they're also part of the groundwork for future campaigns.

His stimulus plan, which he touted in his remarks, revealed a rift between Democrats and Republicans that the president vowed to bridge.

Mr. Obama is in a position where, politically, he's forced to remind Americans that he's trying to do the right thing to clean up a mess he "inherited" in order to counter to the incessant criticism and virtual non-existent support the plan has received from Republicans.

"As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress to send me a recovery plan by President's Day that would put people back to work and put money in their pockets. Not because I believe in bigger government – I don't. Not because I'm not mindful of the massive debt we've inherited – I am," he said.

"I called for action because the failure to do so would have cost more jobs and caused more hardships," he added. "In fact, a failure to act would have worsened our long-term deficit by assuring weak economic growth for years. That's why I pushed for quick action. And tonight, I am grateful that this Congress delivered, and pleased to say that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is now law."

Why is Mr. Obama saying this? Because he counts reselling his agenda to Americans as one of his most important tasks.

But part of his message is that he also has a legacy to build. He has an approval rating to maintain. He has hundreds of Democrats running in elections next year and his own re-election to think about.

Why is Mr. Obama traveling to states such as Indiana, Colorado, Virginia and Florida to sell his stimulus plan, as he has in recent weeks? Why is he heading to North Carolina later this week to announce his troop drawdown plan in Iraq?

Beyond the relevant reasons – he left the Beltway to talk to Americans in person, he was highlighting examples of who would benefit from his plan, etc. – he was also visiting states he won. They're states Democratic presidential candidates hadn't won in years, and he may be visiting them with a little of that campaign mindset looking ahead to 2012.

It's not just the president who's balancing image and his political future. Many Republicans are positioning themselves for next year's midterms, while others are potentially setting themselves up for presidential runs in 2012.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., who delivered tonight's Republican response, is one of those GOP "rising stars" that may be eyeing the White House in 2012.

"Today in Washington, some are promising that government will rescue us from the economic storms raging all around us. Those of us who lived through Hurricane Katrina, we have our doubts," the 37-year-old Indian-American Jindal said earlier.

"Democratic leaders say their legislation will grow the economy," he said. "What it will do is grow the government, increase our taxes down the line, and saddle future generations with debt. ... It's irresponsible. And it's no way to strengthen our economy, create jobs, or build a prosperous future for our children."

Republicans digging their heels in on the stimulus is a clear sign that they're banking on it as a major talking point in 2010. If the economy doesn't turn around in the next 12 months, guess who the Republicans will be blaming: the president and the Democratic Congress.

And in many ways, tonight's speech – as well as Gov. Jindal's response – had the feel of a campaign.

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"To solve our current problems, Washington must lead," Jindal said, sounding a little bit like candidate Obama. "But the way to lead is not to raise taxes and put more money and power in hands of Washington politicians. The way to lead is by empowering you - the American people. Because we believe that Americans can do anything."
"We appreciate his message of hope - but sometimes it seems we look for hope in different places. Democratic leaders in Washington place their hope in the federal government. We place our hope in you - the American people," he added.

For his part, Mr. Obama wrapped up his remarks tonight with the feel of a campaign speech too.

"[I]f we come together and lift this nation from the depths of this crisis; if we put our people back to work and restart the engine of our prosperity; if we confront without fear the challenges of our time and summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit, then someday years from now our children can tell their children that this was the time when we performed, in the words that are carved into this very chamber, 'something worthy to be remembered,'" he said.

For all of the political undercurrents in his address, Mr. Obama did lay out an agenda in front of Congress and millions of Americans. And, without a doubt, Republicans will be using his words as the blueprint for a report card of sorts, using it as a reference for the success and failures.

Tonight's address will go down as a watershed event in the young Obama presidency; it not only laid out his policy vision over the coming weeks and months, but its effects certainly will be felt by those running for office next year and even by the president himself in 2012.

Steve Chaggaris is CBS News Political Director.

More CBSNews.com Coverage Of President Obama's Address To Congress:
  • Steve Chaggaris

    Steve Chaggaris is CBSNews.com's Executive Editor, Washington.

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