All the public opinion polls now confirm that President Obama has moved up sharply and significantly in popularity and job approval since he began to tack toward the center after the November election. Rasmussen and Zogby both have him over 50 percent job approval for the first time in almost a year. The key event was his high-minded speech in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings and his clear separation from the blame-oriented liberal commentators who tried to pin the killings on the tea party and Sarah Palin.
Now, as he prepares to deliver his third State of the Union address, he will have a national audience that will see him for one hour doing what he does best - giving a speech. State of the Union addresses are not to be taken lightly. In the Clinton Administration, I compared them to the towers of a suspension bridge. When the speech was given, the president's ratings would rise only to fall gradually until they perked up again at the next State of the Union speech.
Obama will, doubtless, be the soul of moderation, bipartisanship, and compromise in his speech and may well see his ratings soar further upward.
But don't panic. Obama has to begin to take real positions on real issues posed by the Republican Congress. Will he cut spending sharply when the debt limit is increased? Will he agree to defunding Obamacare? Will he go along with banning the EPA from issuing regulations taxing carbon emissions? Will his Administration permit the National Labor Relations Board to ban secret ballots in union elections or let the FCC regulate the Internet and cripple talk radio? Will he veto budgets that have earmarks inserted by his Democratic allies?
On these issues, there really is no center. If Obama wants to cut spending by only a moderate amount, that is not centrism. Half of too much is still too much.
If the Republicans pose these choices starkly, Obama's so-called move to the center will be exposed as the fraud that it is. He cannot remain protected by his own platitudes and clichés when he has to make real decisions about public policy, choosing between his own liberal/socialist ideology and what America wants.
Indeed, the public will be doubly cynical about him if his move to the center turns out to have no substance. They will feel conned once again by the glib silver tongue in the White House. And Obama will have a hard time fooling the people thrice!
But the Republicans must do their part. To call Obama's bluff, they will have to pass serious alternatives to his policies - big cuts in spending, defunding of Obamacare and of his administrative orders, and a procedure for state bankruptcies. On the rocks of these issues, Obama's centrism will smash to pieces and he will be revealed for the radical that he really is.
There will be some Republicans who will want to meet him in the middle and agree to some cosmetic changes in Obamacare and some peripheral cuts in spending. We must not listen to these voices. It is only by posing sharp issues and manifestly different paths that Obama will be forced to choose and, in the process, be exposed.
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