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Obama's State of the Focus Group Speech

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The president, we were told, spent a good deal of time in the days leading up to his State of the Union address, going over it with a fine-toothed comb, making changes and additions in longhand.

But judging from the speech, he also spent a lot of time going over the results of focus groups and polls. Indeed, the speech, despite its charm, humor, and occasionally impassioned rhetoric, had the feel of being focus-grouped within an inch of its life. There was a decidedly paint-by-poll-numbers air about it.

Focus group participants say they are concerned about the deficit? Then let's throw in a 3-year spending freeze, delivered with a populist spin. "Like any cash-strapped family," the president said, "we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don't. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will."

Sure, the freeze will actually have little impact on the multi-trillion dollar deficit, exempts budget-bloating defense spending, and, as Steve Clemons puts it, "will essentially forfeit America's growth future to China." But "spending freeze" moved the test dials -- so spending freeze it is!

Remember when serious health care reform was going to be the main path to reducing long-term budget deficits? Not anymore. Now we're going to freeze spending -- except, of course, on the wars of choice we are fighting, at a cost of $250 billion a year, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The president and his team know that the spending freeze is little more than what The Economist's Ryan Avent calls "a bright shining gimmick." And no one in the administration could really have believed that conservatives would suddenly swoon and fall into line at the mere mention of "freezing discretionary spending."

Indeed, the reaction of Republicans to his announcement that the freeze won't take effect until 2011 was so derisive that Obama fired back with a caustic ad lib: "That's how budgets are done."

The truth is, the American people are not angry because of all the money the government has spent this year -- except, of course, the people who believe Obama was born in Kenya, is a Muslim, and a Socialist. The rest of the people, the ones Obama has a chance of reaching, are angry because the vast majority of that money went to -- and continues to go to -- rescuing Wall Street, which has thanked taxpayers by reducing lending, recording record profits, paying out massive bonuses, and using our money to pay lobbyists to scuttle financial reform. That is what is putting voters on the electoral warpath.

The president's Pander-palooza continued with the middle class-friendly initiatives he announced on Monday and touched on again during the SOTFG (State of the Focus Group). As I wrote earlier this week, these modest tax credits and subsidies "are all very good ideas, but hardly commensurate with the deep crisis America's middle class is in." The New York Times labeled them the "opposite of bold."

They are also incredibly similar to the "middle class bill of rights" Bill Clinton rolled out in the wake of the mid-term shellacking Democrats took in 1994. Obama has apparently decided that he'll cut to the chase and preemptively follow Clinton's third-way strategies. So get ready to wave goodbye to the Big Bang agenda, and say hello to bite-sized programs -- Obama equivalents of school uniforms, extended hospital stays for new moms, and midnight basketball leagues. But when Wall Street was in trouble it didn't get a bunch of micro ideas, it got a huge bailout.

But 2010 isn't 1994. Robert Reich, who, as Clinton's Secretary of Labor had a front-row seat to that time, lays out the vast gulf between then and now, writing on HuffPost that in 1994 "the U.S. economy was coming out of a recession. It was of no consequence that Clinton's jobs proposals were small or that he moved to the right and whacked the budget, because within a year the great American jobs machine was blasting away and the middle class felt a lot better... Today, though, there's no sign on the horizon of a vigorous recovery."

President Obama is not going to be able to micro-trend his way into this recovery. And he's not going to be able to win back the confidence of the American people with worthwhile but small bore initiatives like child care tax credits. And he's got to make sure his team doesn't go around making claims like the one Austan Goolsbee made on MSNBC the other morning, when he told Chuck Todd that child care is "highly tied to the job market" and that many people are out of work because they can't afford to get someone to take care of their children. But people aren't out of work because they can't afford a baby sitter; they're out of work because there are six applicants for every job opening.

And while most State of the Union speeches have a bit of a kitchen-sink feel to them, this one seemed particularly so with its blink-and-you-missed-it mentions of "earmark reform" and cracking "down on violations of equal pay laws -- so that women get equal pay for an equal day's work." It felt less like an overriding vision for the country, and more like an attempt to deliver at least one applause line for every constituency in the country.

That's not political leadership. Obama clearly understands this. It's why he ended his speech by mocking politicians who "do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation." And he just as clearly has the ability to articulate a bold vision for the nation and lead it where it desperately needs to go.

But he didn't do it tonight.

P.S.: It was great to hear the president embrace the Move Your Money concept, "proposing that we take $30 billion of the money Wall Street banks have repaid and use it to help community banks give small businesses the credit they need to stay afloat."