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In Speech, Obama May Set Reaganesque Path

There's considerable theater surrounding President Obama's first State of the Union address tomorrow night, coming as polls reflect increasing skepticism about his presidency and the Democratically-controlled Congress. With a fresh rebuke from the voters of Massachusetts, Obama will enter the House chamber seemingly humbled, and also very much aware of the political stakes.

"I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president," the president told ABC's Diane Sawyer in an interview Monday.

Exactly what tone he'll set from the rostrum is yet to be seen. But there are two interesting parallels to be drawn with two of his predecessors with whom he's compared often.

In 1995, President Clinton delivered his second State of the Union address before the first majority-Republican Congress in generations. He immediately set a conciliatory tone, with a line that bears striking similarity to the sentiment Obama expressed after Scott Brown's victory last week.

"If we agree on nothing else tonight, we must agree that the American people certainly voted for change in 1992 and in 1994," he said. "As I look out at you, I know how some of you must have felt in 1992."

Reflecting on a political climate that is often compared to today's, Clinton also said that the American people were not "singing," but "shouting. "And now all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike, must say, 'We hear you. We will work together to earn the jobs you have given us. For we are the keepers of a sacred trust, and we must be faithful to it in this new and very demanding era.'"

Along those lines, Obama has said in recent days that his administration has hit a "buzz saw," and taken some responsibility for failing to acknowledge as much as he said he should the frustrations Americans continue to feel. But the similarities may stop there, as administration officials are reportedly determined not to mirror the incrementalist path that Clinton set forward in the rest of his speech.

"I know that last year, as the evidence indicates, we bit off more than we could chew," Clinton said. "So I'm asking you that we work together. Let's do it step by step. Let's do whatever we have to do to get something done."

Obama himself seemed to flatly rule out that approach in yesterday's ABC interview, saying: "I will not slow down in terms of going after the big problems that this country faces."

Some Democrats prefer to compare the current political environment not to 1994 but to 1982, when Republicans lost more than 20 seats in the House but maintained a majority in the Senate. As he delivered the State of the Union address in 1983, President Reagan was suffering what proved to be the lowest numbers of his presidency. And yet in that speech, he immediately set the tone by hailing an agreement reached just days earlier with Democratic leaders on steps to be taken to reform Social Security.

"Pundits and experts predicted that party divisions and conflicting interests would prevent the Commission from agreeing on a plan to save social security. Well, sometimes, even here in Washington, the cynics are wrong," Reagan said.

It's that sort of statement Obama would liked to have uttered on health reform, and perhaps still might in some form if Democrats can nail down a last-minute path toward salvaging the plan. But the administration instead is teasing the speech with new proposals on two critical economic issues: jobs and the deficit. Monday morning, the president announced some jobs programs, and later the administration announced a proposed spending freeze in the 2011 budget.

Reagan himself spoke extensively on both subjects in 1983, most notably saying: "The deficit problem is a clear and present danger to the basic health of our Republic."

"We need a plan to overcome this danger -- a plan based on these principles," he said. "It must be bipartisan. ... It must be fair. ... And finally, it must be realistic. We can't rely on hope alone."

On that final count, surely the Obama administration would agree.