The political genius of an election-year State of the Union address is that it allows an incumbent executive to appear presidential while he is pounding his opponent into the ground.
No incumbent, Democrat or Republicans, liberal or conservative, is ever going to pass up the opportunity to slip the knife in, especially when the date for delivering the annual address happens to fall at a point on the electoral calendar when the president’s likely opponent is locked in a bitter fight for his own party’s nomination,
So it should come as no surprise that Barack Obama used Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech to knock the legs out from under an already wobbly Mitt Romney.
What was remarkable was the precision with which Obama assaulted the man whom the president’s aides still anticipate will be his Republican challenger.
Speaking on the very day that the Bain Capitalist released tax returns that showed he paid taxes at a dramatically lower rate than most Americans—under 14 percent, as compared with 35 percent rate paid by many working Americans —Obama focused on the need to reform tax policy in order to extract a fairer fraction from the rich.
“You can call this class warfare all you want,” Obama declared, in the night’s takeaway line. “But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”
Obama made his support for the so-called “Buffett Rule”—a calculus based on the compaint of billionaire investor Warren Buffett that he pays taxes at a lower rate than his secretary—central to a speech that, while it may have fallen short of true progressive populism, certainly engaged in plenty of partisan populism.
Incorporating the call for tax justice into a broader economic fairness message—which included proposals to protect financial consumers, address trade-policy inequities and reward companies that repatriate jobs from overseas—Obama was steady and determined in framing the national debate as a choice between “two directions."
"One is towards less opportunity and less fairness," explained the president. "Or we can fight for where I think we need to go: building an economy that works for everyone, not just a wealthy few.”
Sure, Romney complained. “Tonight, we’ll also be treated to more divisive rhetoric from a desperate campaigner-in-chief,” the former vulture, er, venture capitalist announced in a “prebuttal” to Obama’s speech.