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Capitol Hill (CNN) – Forget the instant pundit opinions about last week’s State of the Union (the bipartisan seating chart may be the headline for decades to come anyway).
Consider instead what President Obama’s second State of the Union (and fourth address to Congress) tells us about how his words and promises have changed since he announced his run for the White House, exactly four years ago next week.
This week’s American Sauce compares candidate Obama with President Obama. And we notice some changes.
Click here to listen. Or continue reading for some highlights.
Four years is a loose eyelash for history, but for U.S. presidents it can be a lifetime. What does last week’s State of the Union and other recent remarks show about President Obama now versus candidate Obama then?
“We have seen a change,” said Matt Eshbaugh-Soha, professor of political science at the University of North Texas. “And the change is primarily emphasizing those promises he’s most able to keep.”
American Sauce sought out Eshbaugh-Soha because he’s an expert not only on the American presidency but on the words used by American presidents. He sees President Obama now stressing issues where he can win and using words that are more appealing, even as he continues to push behind-the-scenes for more controversial measures.
Listen to the podcast for more specifics, but a couple of areas to note:
In his first address to Congress, in February of 2009, President Obama said, “I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America.”
By his 2011 State of the Union the words “cap,” “carbon” and “pollution” were gone. Instead, Mr. Obama made this call, “I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: by 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.”
The push for a much higher level of renewable energy has run throughout candidate and President Obama’s speeches. But note the way he has changed how he describes his goal, talking about the positive “clean energy” and no longer the negative “pollution”.
As for cap-and-trade, the change in Obama speech goes back to the death of the proposal in the Senate last year. Faced with another Congressional roadblock on cap-and-trade, the president is no longer talking much about the idea but he is more quietly pushing for carbon caps to be enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency.
(Clarification on “quietly.” The EPA and White House have issued many releases on changing carbon standards and many administration officials have spoken about it, but it is not a primary subject the president himself brings up.)
Tax Cuts – Middle Class to Corporate
In his speech following the Iowa Caucuses in 2008, candidate Obama railed against corporate job exporters, saying, “I will end tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas and put a middle class tax cut into the pockets of Americans who deserve them.”
Flash forward to State of the Union 2011. President Obama: “tonight, I’m asking Democrats and Republicans to simplify the system. Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field. And use the savings to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years.”
In 2008 and now, President Obama continues to push for both middle class and some corporate tax relief. But note there is a significant change in focus in his major addresses. In 2008, candidate Obama pledged to use money saved from closing tax breaks for the middle class. In 2011, those savings, President Obama said, should go to a cut in the corporate tax rate.
Yes We Can, I Believe
Presidential observers nearly all predict that once a candidate becomes president, especially if they must contend with a different ruling party in Congress, their tone will change from a powerful leader sense of “we will” to more of a strong negotiator stance of “we must” or “we should”.
Candidate Obama unleashed a steady percussion of “Yes, we can!,” a phrase he put in the spotlight with his concession speech after the New Hampshire primaries in 2008.
Now, in President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union, he called for both parties to work together and said, “I believe we can. And I believe we must.”
The move is from the confident “Yes, we can!” in 2008 to the pragmatic “I believe we can” in 2011.
It’s also worth watching one of the president’s touchstone words: moment.
Following the 2008 Iowa Caucuses, candidate Obama used it this way, to end his historic speech: “This was the moment where we finally beat back the politics of fear and doubt and cynicism. The politics where we tore each other down, instead of lifting each other up. This was the moment.”
It was an emphatic, defining statement.
But in State of the Union 2011, the president used the word “moment” as more of a question mark about the future, saying, “What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.”
Overall, experts like the University of North Texas’ Eshbaugh-Soha, seem to agree that generally President Obama’s agenda has not changed. But what he says in public about that agenda as well as how he conveys it has shifted.
How much do these word changes matter? Is it simply a candidate running for change has become a president looking for votes in Congress? Is this journalistic nit-picking or is it a telling shift?
Let us know what you think. Leave your comment below.
Again, listen to the full podcast here.