Bill Pierce is a senior vice president in APCO Worldwide’s Washington, D.C., office. He specializes in advising health care clients; his work includes policy development, issue advocacy, message development, crisis communication and media relations.
With two exceptions — gun control and gays in the military — the State of the Union speech delivered by President Obama could have been given by a Republican. And unlike his inaugural SOTU speech last year (and the traditional SOTU speech), he did not recite a specific laundry list of proposals and ideas he would pursue in the coming year. Instead he presented broad themes and big ideas (“Sputnik moment,” invest in the future, reform our tax code, deficit reduction). And in those places where he did provide specifics, it was often an idea that undercut Republican ideas (veto legislation that contained earmarks, reform the tax code and freeze all domestic spending). The significance of this is that if it was not clear before, it is now — President Obama has shifted hard to the center of the political spectrum.
This shift by the president does not mean there will be no clashes with the GOP, especially with House Republicans, but it does mean that the clashes will be on a narrower playing field. For at least the next two years, President Obama will not take on large social issues like health care reform, but instead will focus on the economy and deficit reduction as a strategy to undercut Republican efforts to capture these issues. The reason for this shift is the 2012 presidential election. And the focus is on Independents. The election results clearly showed that it was Independents (not the Tea Party) who elected the Republican House and provided the significant GOP gains in the Senate, because they abandoned Democrats and supported Republicans. And if it any more evidence is needed, President Obama’s favorability has gone up since the election due a shift of Independents back into his favorability column as a reaction to the recent “Lame Duck” session that emphasized compromise and working together.
There will still be a clear struggle over the health care law, but even there President Obama said he was willing to discuss potential improvements to the law. The conventional wisdom in Washington still maintains that there will be no significant changes to the law though there will be lots of smoke.
The real fights will be over spending. While each side has stated deficits need to be reduced as part of our continuing economic recovery, the details on how are very different. What will be interesting to watch is how the GOP resolves what appears to be a split within their caucus over what and how much to cut, as witnessed by Sen. Rand Paul’s recent proposal to cut $500 billion from the budget. Some might call his plan a “slash and burn” proposal.