It was to be expected that in the course of his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama would mention the killing of Osama bin Laden, whose death represented the culmination of the battle against terrorism that began on September 11, 2001. Far less expected was Obama's use of the bin Laden episode to present a community-minded worldview that contrasts so sharply with the highly individualistic and antigovernment message that has been heard over and over from the Republicans seeking to replace him.
At the very beginning of his speech, the president pivoted from "the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America's armed forces" to the post-World War II nation of his Kansas grandparents. If the war against fascism was followed by "a story of success that every American had a chance to share," surely we can find our way again to "an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules."
There was a black-and-white, 1940s movie feel to all this. Obama was invoking the experience of the Greatest Generation, Harry Truman, and It's a Wonderful Life. Later references to science and technology brought the story forward into twenty-first-century color. But it is plain that in the historic argument that will engage the country for the rest of the year, Obama, no less than the Republicans, is rooting himself in old American values. But in his case, they are the values of solidarity and fairness.
And lest anyone miss his point, Obama ended his speech by referring to a flag he was given bearing names of the SEAL team that undertook the bin Laden mission. The lesson Obama drew: "No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together.... This nation is great because we get each other's backs." It was a long way from the imperatives of the private equity market.
This was a campaign speech, but so, too, were the State of the Union addresses of Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Bill Clinton in 1996, as former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet pointed out. The comparisons are instructive. Obama's was closer to the Reagan model, in form if not content. Reagan laid out what became the major themes of his campaign, including not only the nation's recovery from economic turmoil but also his central philosophical purpose: a continuing battle against "the tendency of government to grow."
Obama's speech was Reagan's turned on its head. Like Reagan, Obama previewed his election arguments in a philosophically aggressive way. But Obama's claim was the opposite of Reagan's. Obama spoke of government's essential role in ensuring shared prosperity and in creating an America "built to last" -- a slogan drawn, perhaps not accidentally, from truck commercials for General Motors, the company whose rescue Obama engineered.
Obama's speech was chock-full of government initiatives: tax benefits to promote domestic manufacturing, new job-training partnerships between community colleges and businesses, education reform, more work-study jobs, broader opportunities for mortgage refinancing, incentives to hold down college tuitions. Obama used his energy program to make his larger point explicit: "Government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground."
In offering a laundry list of programs large and small, Obama's address was positively Clintonian. But there was a major difference. In his 1996 State of the Union, Clinton chose to bend to the conservative wind that had blown in with the Republican sweep in the previous midterm election. "The era of big government is over," Clinton declared in one of his most celebrated lines.
Obama, on the other hand, confronts an even more radical and sweeping assault on government, and so he has decided to take it on, forcefully and directly.
This president has often been lucky in his political life, and so he was again on Tuesday. Hours before Obama spoke, Mitt Romney, the on-again, off-again Republican front-runner, released his 2010 tax return showing him paying a 13.9 percent rate on an income of $21.7 million. Thus did Romney make himself Exhibit A for Obama's campaign on behalf of tax fairness.
But the president's speech showed that he is not counting on luck alone. He is pinning his re-election on a big argument and a big cause. It was Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign that promised voters "a choice, not an echo." We now know that this is exactly what the 2012 election will deliver.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).