Charming, but not bold

President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday was brimming with what so many Americans have long accused him of lacking — empathy for those struggling in a terrible economy and optimism about the country’s future. But as Obama prepares for a tough reelection campaign, working with newly empowered Republicans in a divided government and an entirely altered political landscape, his feel-good message proves he doesn’t feel good about political risks right now. Obama chose to be charming and upbeat in his speech, but not bold.

Without numbers and details, Obama told Americans on Tuesday we could “invest” in the education, infrastructure and energy technologies of tomorrow but begin paying down our crushing debt today. 

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But not really. News out Wednesday that the annual deficit will now top a record $1.5 trillion means that Obama’s proposed earmark ban and spending freeze that would yield $400 billion in savings over 10 years is a Band-Aid. A ripped Band-Aid, at that.

Ironically, in addition to stating he was for the tax cuts for the wealthy he just signed into law, before he was against them (all in the same speech), Obama admitted his deficit reduction baby steps won’t do much. “Most of the cuts and savings I’ve proposed only address our annual domestic spending, which represents little more than 12 percent of our budget. To make further progress, we have to stop pretending that cutting this kind of spending alone will be enough. It won’t. The bipartisan commission I created last year made this crystal clear,” he said. Obama then went on to back not one recommendation made by his fiscal commission. There was pablum about strengthening Social Security without affecting current retirees that liberals would approve of, but nothing that signaled a commitment to reform in the context of deficit reduction.

Despite this, polls will likely show that Obama’s speech was well received. Beyond the uplifting rhetoric he included policy promises sure to appeal to Republicans, independents and business. Tort reform, tax reform, trade. He was magnanimous, conciliatory and gracious, particularly to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who was sitting behind him. The theme of the address, about the need to improve our global competitiveness, would make even the Birther crowd nod their head in agreement. Who doesn’t want to win the future? And when he wasn’t telling us how China, India and South Korea are beating us, Obama was extolling the unique majesty and virtues of America, with patriotic appeals to directly mirror the characterizations of American exceptionalism filling the speeches given by leading conservatives, from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to Sarah Palin.

In the weeks to come, Obama’s philosophy — that cuts too deep will stall the fragile economic recovery — will clash directly with that of the GOP as House Republicans move to slash more than $60 billion from 2011 spending alone. The truth is Republicans aren’t attacking the long-term fiscal problem either. But as Republicans control the House alone, a real path to fiscal solvency involving entitlement reform will require presidential leadership. 

Obama should heed his own words from his speech, ones he wrote about out-building, out-educating and out-innovating the rest of the world. He said that “sustaining the American dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age. And now it’s our turn.” It’s just as true for tackling debt as it is for building high-speed rail.

Obama can decide it’s his turn. And he can convince the voters he is the president prepared to own up to the debt, or risk them deciding that he is not.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.