President Obama's budget speech was one part Obama, one part Clinton, one part China. The Obama part came at the end. It was a gesture toward recapturing the image he enjoyed between 2004 and 2008: As the guy who didn't hate and wasn't hated, the guy who could help red and blue America get along. "This sense of responsibility—to each other and to our country—this isn't a partisan feeling," Obama declared. "It isn't a Democratic or a Republican idea. It's patriotism."
I can't imagine that anyone in Team Obama actually believes he can be a uniter again. But looking like he's trying to be, while being foiled by the Republicans, has its advantages. It also feeds into the Clinton part of the Obama speech: I'll protect Medicare. That was a major part of Clinton's reelection campaign in 1996. Clinton acknowledged that spending would be cut, but he lashed the Republicans for threatening popular entitlements. That's what Obama did Wednesday, declaring that "I will preserve these health-care programs as a promise we make to each other in this society. I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs. I will not tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves." Medicare is for Democrats what taxes are for the GOP: The gift that keeps on giving. Since Americans instinctively distrust Republicans on the issue, frightening people about what they might do is easy. It worked for Clinton in 1996 and will likely work for Obama, too.
So far, so familiar. The most innovative part of Obama's speech was how he used China. Americans know that China is doing well, in some ways better than us. They're afraid, and a little envious and Obama played into that: "Go to China and you'll see businesses opening research labs and solar facilities." He went on to talk about the new investments being made by governments like South Korea and Brazil. The message was clear: These countries that are sneaking up on us aren't doing it by slashing spending. They're doing it by using government money to build a world-class infrastructure, and we must, too.
It's an interesting response to the usual Republican line. Republicans tend to argue that America leads the world economically because we're most free, meaning we have the least government. Now Obama's saying we may be losing our lead to countries that have more government. Usually, in American politics, arguing that we should be more like other countries is a political loser. But this may be an exception, first because Americans really are worried that we're losing our edge, and second, because while Americans have a deep-seeded hostility to mimicking Europe, that hostility doesn't apply in the same way when it comes to China.
"President Obama, helping us beat back China by aping China." Maybe that's the slogan for 2012.