Rupert Cornwell: More chastened Clinton than sunny Reagan, but a second term beckons

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The Independent Online

Barack Obama's State of the Union address, with its plea for bipartisanship and sober analysis of the problems facing the country, staked out the terrain for his 2012 bid for re-election bid, which – right now at least – he looks odds-on to secure.

As the President noted, politics in America have always been rowdy, messy and disputatious, a pattern surely only temporarily interrupted by shock at the Tucson shootings. But voters like to think their elected representatives are working together for the national good. And that was the image Mr Obama sought to project.

His speech wasn't very uplifting; indeed by the frequently triumphalist standards of its predecessors, it was almost austere. So was its underlying message: America must "out-innovate, out-educate and out-build" the rest of the world – or become less and less able to compete with the likes of China in the global marketplace.

The sober feel to the occasion was partly due to the unusual mingling of many Republicans and Democrats, sitting side by side and wearing black and white ribbons in honour of the victims of the Tucson shootings, who include Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

At times, Mr Obama tried to project the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan – but that is not his style. A better comparison is the chastened Bill Clinton after his midterm disaster of 1994.

Mr Clinton moved to the centre then, and Mr Obama is doing the same now. The support of centrist independent voters was key to his 2008 success. The desertion of independents was the biggest reason for the Democratic debacle three months ago.

Even more important, the centre is the place from which an incumbent President can play his strongest card, presenting himself as a unifier, above the daily political fray. Tuesday's speech, inevitably, was no match for his moving, pitch-perfect address after Tucson. But for the millions of television viewers who were its most important audience, it might have struck a similar chord.

All of which means his opponents must be very careful. No-one expects the post-Tucson truce will last. But if the polls are right, the majority of Americans believe he is more willing than Republicans to make the necessary compromises.

Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget committee who delivered the official Republican response, was careful. He spoke of the grim consequences that awaited if the US did not quickly reduce the deficit. But he came across as reasonable and constructive.

Not so Michele Bachmann, spokeswoman of the Tea Party faction on Capitol Hill. Her response, which the Republican leadership frowned upon but was powerless to prevent, was the usual tirade against Mr Obama's 'socialist' takeover of America. After she had finished, the Republicans came across as divided. Which is why Mr Obama at this stage looks a decent bet for a second term.