We got mixed signals from a turbulent political week.
Barack Obama seems to be enjoying an uptick in polls — up toward, but not quite at, 50 percent approval. It’s a reminder that he can expect to benefit from Americans’ desire to think well of their presidents and from the reluctance of many voters to be seen as rejecting the first black president.
But his weakness was apparent in his State of the Union address: issues. He devoted a mere 44 words to the health care law passed in March 2010. This is the strongest evidence possible that his signal legislative achievement is a millstone around the neck of his campaign.
Similarly, we heard little in the hour-plus speech about infrastructure. The words “shovel-ready projects” and “high-speed rail” appeared nowhere — significant omissions from a president who (as a mischievous Republican ad shows) sprinkles the same phrases in one State of the Union after another.
And there was a third omission, not perhaps as obvious but, in the long run, possibly more glaring — the omission of any serious public policy initiatives to quicken the pace of economic growth and address the long-term entitlement problems that Obama has occasionally noted.
Yes, he did call for higher taxes on high earners. But the man who can call on experts at the Treasury Department to draft legislation gave no indication that he has any feasible draft for his “Buffett rule,” which would presumably require a second alternative minimum tax for very high earners.
Nor did he indicate that he has made any serious effort to come up with language to penalize corporations that “ship jobs overseas.” Once again, a president hailed for his brilliance has handed off the grimy task of writing legislation entirely to Congress.
What we saw Tuesday night was more like a candidate than an incumbent president.
Not that any of the Republican candidates yet look like a plausible incumbent. Polls show that their nomination battle is lowering poll ratings of the leading contenders, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. The eventual nominee may be able to repair that, though he won’t get a pass from the mainstream media on his weaknesses, as Barack Obama did on Bill Ayers and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Gingrich came out of his victory in South Carolina leading in polls but now seems headed for defeat in Florida. Debates boosted him in South Carolina but cut him down in Florida. And it was not just because of his opponents’ attacks. In the second debate, he was put on the defensive on two characteristically Gingrichian proposals, one based on his study of history and the other on his penchant for futurism.
His proposal to have local boards, modeled on World War II draft boards, decide on legalization of longtime illegal immigrants put him to the left of Romney on this issue — and also gave Romney an opportunity to laud legal immigration and to highlight attacks on Gingrich tactics by the technically neutral Sen. Marco Rubio.
And Gingrich’s proposal for a moon colony, to be granted statehood when its population reaches 13,000, drew scornful rebukes as impractical and hugely expensive from Romney and Rick Santorum. Neither would have had these openings if Gingrich had resisted the impulse to set out novel proposals.
Romney’s rebukes of Gingrich and defense of his business record were his strongest debate performances, and Santorum also performed impressively, especially in criticizing Romney on his Massachusetts health care law.
Romney has led Gingrich by 7 to 9 points in every poll taken since the first Florida debate and looks to be in shape to carry the state and win all its delegates. A victory in Florida would once again install the well-financed and well-organized Romney as the clear favorite for the nomination.
But even in that case, Gingrich, Santorum and Ron Paul each would have plausible reasons for continuing through the few contests (and one debate) in February.
The race so far has given Romney the opportunity to develop the political instincts that he might have obtained from going door-to-door for votes or interacting with lowly colleagues in a caucus as his three rivals have.
His performances in the two Florida debates show he is making some progress. Not enough to be the ideal nominee, perhaps, but maybe enough to beat an incumbent with serious weaknesses, as well as some strengths.