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Mixed Evidence Of Obama's Post-Partisan Presidency


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Those watching President Obama's State of the Union speech last night included Ryan Lizza. This week, the New Yorker magazine published his article, called "The Obama Memos." White House memos to the President and his responses to them were at the heart of that story. Lizza describes a president who spoke of a post-partisan world, but also made calculated political moves, a president who approved a gigantic stimulus plan, but also frustrated some in his administration with penny-pinching. Ryan Lizza joins us in studio on this morning after the speech.

Welcome. Good morning.

RYAN LIZZA: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: So what did the State of the Union speech last night show to you about the evolution of that post-partisan president?

LIZZA: There was some mixed evidence in this speech. He did have this one line where he talked about congressional obstruction. So he's moved from we-all-need-to-work-together to pointing out to the American people that there is this other party out here that is obstructing my agenda. So, you know, that's obviously a significant shift.

INSKEEP: He went very quickly to that. I noticed there was about a one-sentence olive branch: I will work with anybody in this chamber to advance the cause, but, you know, if you're obstructing me, I'm going to move on.

LIZZA: And he talked about some kind of reform of the Senate. It was a little unclear, but it looks like some kind of filibuster reform.

However, the two set-piece stories in the beginning and the end were this analogy to the military, Obama basically saying, look at what our wonderful military does, as a unit, as a team. Look what they can accomplish. Why can't we in politics, as well? So he hasn't abandoned his message of post-partisanship completely. It was an important theme of the speech.

But if you look closely, he's showing some of the lessons he's learned. He believes that the Republican Party was not willing to be his partner the last three years. I think the evidence for that is pretty strong. And he's starting to run against that a little bit.

INSKEEP: Notice that he also hammered at Republican presidential candidate themes, or Republican congressional themes. He said, for example, that he is going after China for trade practices that Americans find objectionable, which is something that Republicans talk about constantly. He even said he admired financial success, which is something that Mitt Romney could've said.

LIZZA: That's right. And he had a line in there when he was talking about his mortgage reform program. He riffed on a line that Mitt Romney uses about letting the market hit rock bottom, or something to that effect.

So I think this speech was very political. You could sort of see the hand of the political advisors in almost every section of this speech as they look out at the political landscape and they identify Obama's vulnerabilities in this campaign and try and address each one, as well as look for points where they can sort of press their case against the Republicans.

INSKEEP: Do you think it was more political than other State of the Unions that he's given, or that other president's have given?

LIZZA: Yeah. I think so. In 2009, he didn't give a State of the Union speech, but he's given an address to Congress. And in 2010, he had a very viable legislative agenda. And those speeches were about pressing that agenda. 2012, he's running for re-election, and he doesn't have much of a chance of passing much through this Congress, let's be honest.

So it's a lot more about jujitsu and setting up campaign themes and figuring out where he can mess with the Republicans. I thought there was a lot more of that last night than in previous ones.

INSKEEP: Jujitsu: That's what we're talking about when we say grabbing Republican language and turning it to his own purposes.

LIZZA: Absolutely. Yeah. You know, there was a lot of talk in the run-up to this speech that it was going to be more like the speech he gave in Osawatomie, Kansas that got a lot of attention, especially on the left. He compared himself to Teddy Roosevelt, and it was a real sort of partisan speech where he dealt with economic inequality in a very upfront way, which he hasn't in the past, and more of a populist Obama.

That's not what we saw last night. This was a much more strategic, tactical Obama thinking about how he's going to win this presidential campaign.

INSKEEP: And someone who insisted over and over again he was going to fight and be effective, whether Congress helped him or not.

LIZZA: That's right. And that's part of the sort of evolution of this president, going from someone who truly came to Washington believing that he could forge some kind of bipartisan consensus on some of the biggest issues, and after three years has realized that that's a bit of a mirage, and has a little bit more of a fighting spirit.

INSKEEP: Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker magazine. Thanks very much.

LIZZA: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.