The President Obama who showed up Tuesday night to deliver the State of the Union Address was the energized, optimistic, Campaign Obama, itching for a fight, in full scold mode. In return Republicans were relatively subdued. Will those two ever get their moods in sync?

The President Obama who showed up Tuesday night to deliver the State of the Union Address was the energized, optimistic, Campaign Obama, itching for a fight, in full scold mode. In return Republicans were relatively subdued. Will those two ever get their moods in sync?


Indeed, Obama came out swinging, taking on congressional inaction and promising to pursue immigration reform, to "end the taxpayer giveaways" to Big Oil "and double-down on a clean energy industry," to help manufacturers that invest in America first, to let tax cuts for the wealthy expire in the name of deficit reduction, to fight any attempted repeal of financial industry reforms, to investigate unfair trading practices in China, to "take the money we're no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home." He started and ended his talk with a foreign policy win - the success of the Navy SEALs team that took out Osama bin Laden - while in between declaring a domestic triumph in Uncle Sam's intervention in the American auto industry. His appeal for an America that is "built to last" stole not so coincidentally from a signature phrase of General Motors. Along the way he took his swipes at GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, though not by name, of course.


The president's speech did attempt to set out a policy blueprint in an election year in which Americans expect practically nothing from Washington, D.C., beyond the probable extension of the payroll tax cut. Obama knows that, and as such this speech was intended not so much for those members of Congress seated before him as for the wider voting audience. This address was meant to draw a line in the sand.


As he signaled in a stump speech in Osawatomie, Kan., in December, Obama is putting most of his re-election chips on the issues of economic fairness and the future of America's middle class, going bare-knuckles populist and not looking back. "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, 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," he said.


Republicans would much rather concentrate on the out-of-control spending and deficits, of course, as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels made clear in the official Republican response. It was very telling that the party would choose someone many Republicans wish was running for the White House in a field that so far has fallen somewhat short of inspirational to much of the party faithful, even against a vulnerable incumbent.


Nobody likes being lectured to, of course, and some of that was reflected in the body language of Republicans, but for the most part the GOP strategy seemed to tread the path of politeness, not even responding to the president's attempts to bait them: "You can call this class warfare all you want. ... Most Americans would call that common sense." Apparently there is some awareness among Republican leaders that they were outplayed politically over the last year, that Democrats' depiction of them as utterly uncompromising ideologues has begun to stick in the American psyche. Polling suggests that. Arguably Republicans should be careful not to overcompensate now.


On the whole, it was a much better-than-average opposition party response. Daniels was perhaps most effective in emphasizing that the differences between their competing visions for the nation were not ideological or partisan so much as "simply mathematical"; in charging that Democrats are guilty of believing in "trickle-down government" - obviously a twist on a criticism of Republicans; in explaining that "the routes back to an America of promise, and to a solvent America that can pay its bills and protect its vulnerable, start in the same place" with "pro-growth" policies that lead to private sector jobs rather than "pro-poverty" policies that rely on government assistance; and in defining the conservative principle of a government "meant to serve the people rather than supervise them."


The problem is that Daniels' speech read better than it sounded, given a rather passionless delivery, and that Americans often respond to how leaders make them feel. While Obama was practically defiant in proclaiming America's continued greatness - "America is back. Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about" - one line that stuck out of Daniels' talk was not to believe any claim "that the state of our union is anything but grave." If Ronald Reagan portrayed that "city on a hill" - which Daniels actually referenced, if rather flatly, in his closing - Jimmy Carter gave his memorable "malaise" speech. Everyone knows which one translated to electoral success.


The choices are stark in what should be a fascinating, and critical, election.


Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.