November on his mind

President Obama kicked off his reelection campaign Tuesday from the rostrum of the House of Representatives with good news and bad news. He started with his things-could-be-worse message on the economy but warned that even with 22 months of job growth, the return of the domestic auto industry and an encouraging turnaround in manufacturing, the middle class could still wash out to sea.

After his historic victory in 2008, Obama hopes to make history again by winning reelection with the highest unemployment under any president seeking a second term since World War II. In last year’s State of the Union address, he urged “investments” that would improve our global competitiveness and insisted that Americans “out-innovate, out-educate and out-build” the rest of the world. This year Obama asked that millionaires pay their “fair share” in taxes so government can keep its commitment to “education, medical research, a strong military and care for our veterans.” And he warned that as we pay nearly $1 trillion more to pay for “what was supposed to be a temporary tax break for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans,” if we are serious about paying down our debt, we can’t do both. 

As he called to end tax cuts for the wealthiest earners he broke a campaign promise to extend just a year ago, Obama brought a prop — the now-famous secretary of Warren Buffett’s who pays a higher tax rate than her billionaire-investor boss. Taunting fuming Republicans, Obama said, “You can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”

Along with asking millionaires to pay a new 30 percent tax rate, Obama presented a laundry list of new government initiatives — new taxes on companies outsourcing jobs, a new trade enforcement unit, the largest Department of Defense purchase of clean energy ever, $3,000 savings for homeowners paid by taxing large financial institutions, a new financial crimes unit and a veterans job corps. Obama even called on states to require that students complete high school. 

Obama employed campaign tough-talk in the address as well. He will “not back down” from his healthcare reform law, food safety, environmental protections or government funding of clean-energy projects. His not-so-subtle defense of the failed solar company Solyndra, which administration officials were warned would collapse in spite of a government loan guarantee, went as follows: “I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy ... I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here.” 

Obama rightly took credit for the end of the war in Iraq, the tightening of sanctions against Iran and the killing of Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gadhafi. When he did, he spoke of the teamwork and the mutual trust of the troops who carry out such missions for our freedom. Common resolve and unity, he said, is what made America great and is what is required to meet our current challenges as well. 

But when Obama asks for another term this year, he won’t spend too much time talking about the unity of the American family, or the hope he inspired in 2008. The slogans of his first campaign — E Pluribus Unum and “Yes we can” — will give way to dire predictions for this make-or-break moment for the middle class, talk of fair shares and fair shakes, and whether  or not class warfare is common sense. It will be negative and divisive. But depending on the unemployment numbers in October and the GOP presidential nominee, it just might work.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.