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Tonight’s Address Will Be Obama’s Positioning Statement

Washington’s main event last week featured presidential spokesman Robert “The Enforcer” Gibbs taking on CNBC’s Rick “Tea Party” Santelli over the housing bailout package, and it wasn’t pretty. Gibbs got personal at the podium, sarcastically unloading on the former trader with undisguised disdain.

[IMGCAP(1)]His shots may have gotten a laugh in the White House briefing room, but across America, homeowners who are “playing by the rules” and paying their mortgages on time were cheering for Santelli, who clearly struck a nerve. Round One goes to Santelli.

Gibbs’ decision to go into attack mode was clear evidence that, for the first time in this new presidency, Team Obama is worried. Maybe it was the Santelli video’s half- million hits on YouTube or maybe it was the larger problem that their White House debut has been characterized by a series of missteps.

Cabinet selection screw-ups have reminded voters that Democrats and taxes have never been a good combination and undermined Obama and his staff’s image of competence and cool. His administration’s stimulus package, written by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and rammed through Congress by a Democratic majority with no pretense to bipartisanship, has struggled.

The markets have failed to rally behind the new administration’s economic policies with the Dow losing more than 800 points, about 10 percent of its value, since Barack Obama took office. For millions of Americans watching their retirement income, college funds and savings continue to disappear, it’s no surprise Obama’s extra $13 a week tax cut hasn’t provided the political boost his administration expected.

So, last week, the last thing this White House needed was a popular uprising in the form of a “Chicago Tea Party” protesting its new $75 billion housing bailout. This episode, which may not be over, is a reflection of a White House that has reached a structural decision point. Tonight’s historic address to Congress occurs at a time of great consternation and fear after what has been a tumultuous first month for this president.

In part, Obama’s problems stem from a political identity crisis. Is he the Obama who campaigned on a promise of new bipartisanship in Washington or the Obama who asked for Republican ideas and then let Pelosi and Reid ignore them?

Is he the self-described centrist of the campaign who promised to govern from the middle or the president who offered up a classic leftist spending bill, unique only in its breathtaking size.

For President Obama, tonight’s address has become more than an economic report card to Congress or even another attempt to sell his economic recovery plan. This address to Congress has become a structural positioning speech.

He must decide whether he is going to continue to pursue a single-party approach to governing based on the “we won” doctrine or embrace a true consensus approach to solving the nation’s serious problems. What much of Washington’s chattering class has forgotten in all the hype about partisanship over the past month is the fact that the majority party defines the level of bipartisanship, not the other way round.

Real bipartisanship means minority inclusion in both the legislative process and the final product. It isn’t a party at the White House and a free cocktail.

Over the past few weeks, many Democrats and pundits have seemed to suggest that accepting a social invitation from the president requires his “guests” abandon their principles at the door in gratitude, as if political philosophy were a matter of good manners. If that logic held true, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) ought to have the president over for brats and beer and set the same expectations for an ideological flip from Obama.

The president deserves credit for at least talking to Republicans, but one phone call by Obama reining in Pelosi would have done far more to create the post-partisan Washington he promised. That call was never made.

Real bipartisanship is defined by whether and how much the majority will allow minority participation in the legislative process. Obama has another chance to begin again tonight to keep his promise. He has a choice.

Will he offer an agenda based on increased taxes on small business, more government spending, more government control of health care and cuts in defense spending, or will he try to create real consensus with an agenda that reflects all elements of American life and the ideas of both parties?

He can use this speech to structurally position himself on the left by appealing to his liberal base as he has done recently or he can embrace real bipartisanship and achieve a broad majority coalition. In November, the American people didn’t vote to change the country’s basic centrist, free-market principles; they voted for leadership they believed would focus on their problems and solve them.

This remains a center-right country. Tonight’s speech will tell us the kind of president Barack Obama intends to be.

David Winston is president of the Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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