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Obama, At Crossroads, Takes Different Route Than Clinton In '96

As the president delivered the final State of the Union address of his term before a looming re-election battle, he looked out at a sea of angry and skeptical Republicans who had fought him on budgets, government shutdowns, and whether or not to raise the nation's debt ceiling.

And what did President Bill Clinton do in 1996?

He delivered his "the era of big government is over" speech, which The Washington Post summed up this way: "Clinton Embraced GOP Themes in Setting Agenda."

President Obama may be buffeted by nearly identical issues — including the specter of pugnacious Clinton-era House Speaker Newt Gingrich as a potential rival — but he took a decidedly different tack Tuesday in his last State of the Union speech before voters decide whether to grant him another.

There was no embrace of Republican themes, no pathway to triangulation. Instead, he served up a paean to economic fairness, an ideal that Obama inherited from his mother, says Stanley Renshon, a political scientist and psychoanalyst who dissected the president's psyche in a recent book, Barack Obama and the Politics of Redemption.

"Fairness," says Renshon, a City University of New York professor, "has become quite iconic for Barack Obama."

On Tuesday night, Obama laid that theme out clearly. "We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by," he said. "Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules."

The growing wealth disparity in the country, and the attention lavished on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's vast wealth and low tax rate, provided soft ground for the president's theme, expected to accompany him through his re-election campaign.

"It's very appealing in the abstract," says Renshon. "Fairness is very complicated, but it's one of those things that can float on air if you don't think too much about it."

Renshon titled Chapter 5 of his Obama book, "The Moral Thrust of Obama's Ambition: Fairness."

In his book, Renshon writes that Obama's life's purpose — to be in a political position to "make good on his father's failed ambition" — would later "be fused and viewed through the cardinal virtue of fairness," an important part of his mother's legacy.

He and others have theorized that the president, whose father abandoned the family shortly after his son was born, more fully embraced his mother's fairness legacy after her early death from cancer.

Economic and social fairness is an appealing message in the abstract, he said, adding that he'd advise the president's potential White House rivals to figure out how to respond to the populist theme destined to lace Obama's campaign rhetoric.

There are opportunities for the president's Republican rivals to let the air out of his fairness argument.

"The problem is what people call the representative metric — the question of whether the things that he mentions, while true, are the real problem," he says, "or even representative of the problem at hand."

Clinton chose a State of the Union theme that wasn't about fairness, or about who was earning what and who was paying what. He in essence decided to appear to be embracing criticism that government was too big, and something needed to be done.

Clinton "was subtly saying to his opponents, 'You've got a point,' " Renshon says.

"Obama's not saying you've got a point. He's saying, 'We're the 99 percent; you're the 1 percent.' "

Divisive? Maybe. Effective? Maybe. Surprising? Not at all.

"Some things in your life are center stage, and some things are on the periphery," Renshon says. "For Obama, fairness became center stage."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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