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Obama Steals GOP Rhetoric

In a Vulnerable Spot, President Adopts Talking Points to Disarm Opponents

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The White House has been co-opting talking points and policy ideas from the GOP as President Barack Obama attempts to deflect attacks on his record heading into a tough re-election dogfight.

It's not a new practice but one the administration seems to be using more and more with the president vulnerable on a host of issues from high gas prices to the deficit — and it's a trend people in both parties expect will continue in Tuesday night's State of the Union address.

Even as they anticipate the president will take aim at Congressional dysfunction, Democrats and Republicans alike also expect Obama to roll out moderate-sounding initiatives and rhetoric that echo some GOP positions on energy, taxes, spending and regulations. But they disagree on how sincere the White House effort will be.

Republicans note that the president has been trying to co-opt GOP themes on those issues for much of the past year but argue his words do not match his record.

They bristled last week when Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline and his spokesman, Jay Carney, repeatedly contended that the president has an "all-of-the-above" approach to energy — a line Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) made a staple of his presidential stump speech in 2008.

"Paging Orwell," tweeted Brendan Buck, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), to Carney's comment last week that Obama was "firm" in his support for oil and gas development despite the Keystone decision.

Carney and other Democrats have used the "all-of-the-above" line before, even as the administration has continued to resist a host of House Republican proposals for more oil drilling on land and offshore.

Republicans pointed out that in 2009 a strategy memo from a Democratic polling firm and the think tank Third Way urged Democrats to embrace the GOP's "all of the above" phrase.

A week earlier, Obama himself sounded like any Republican presidential candidate as he railed against the byzantine bureaucracy under his command and proposed new presidential "consolidation authority" to fast-track bills shrinking the government.

"The government we have is not the government we need," Obama said.

That announcement actually built on Obama's pledge in last year's State of the Union address to seek ways to make government agencies and regulations more efficient and less onerous.

Obama also has repeatedly pointed to elements of his American Jobs Act — which will get a mention Tuesday night — that have previously received GOP support, and he has spent the better part of the past three months beating up Republicans for stalling on the payroll tax cut and nixing his small-business tax cut proposal.

Co-opting the opposition's rhetoric in an era of divided government is straight out of President Bill Clinton's playbook, when he declared in his 1996 State of the Union address, "The era of big government is over."

But the Democratic and Republican camps differ over just how successful — or not — the strategy will prove to be.

"He's not Bubba," a senior House Republican aide said. "And he's not going to be running against a Member of Congress. Oh, and the unemployment rate is over 8 percent. This year is going to be a referendum on his job on the economy."

A senior Senate Republican aide said Obama is playing on GOP rhetorical turf when he talks about controlling spending, cutting taxes and increasing energy production.

"You can't out-Republican a Republican," the aide said. "You can't out-energy a Republican, and you can't out-tax-cut a Republican."

The Senate aide predicted voters would see through the rhetoric because of issues such as Keystone and will want the real thing in November: "You can't say one day you are for an 'all-of-the-above' energy plan and then go against a project the unions want the next."

The aide doesn't expect much in the way of real cooperation with Republicans on spending, taxes, regulations or energy.

The aide said all of the talk from the White House about wanting to work with Congress would be just that: talk.

"They've given up on Congress, not just Republicans," the aide said. "They don't want Congress to do anything because it doesn't work with their message."

A senior Senate Democratic aide predicted the president will try to establish that it is reasonable to look at bipartisan ideas by spotlighting issues Republicans have previously supported, including ones that have strong support from the business community — such as infrastructure projects and tax breaks for small businesses.

"Kill them with reasonability," the aide said.

Another Senate aide said that alongside moderate and Republican-leaning proposals, Obama can then draw contrasts with the GOP on issues of economic fairness, like with the "Buffett Rule" that millionaires should pay a tax rate similar to that paid by the middle class.

Jim Manley, a longtime aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and director at QGA Public Affairs, said the strategy puts Republicans on the defensive.

"It's a skillful way to try and co-opt the debate and take it right back at the Republicans," he said.

Manley said initiatives such as consolidation authority should enjoy Republican support but probably won't. "The reality is that they are so determined to defeat him they're not going to go for it. ... It's a good way to call them out," Manley said.

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