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Paul West, McClatchy Newspapers, Published January 26 2011

Analysis: Obama appears to have bounced back from November

WASHINGTON – The moment was tailor-made for Barack Obama, who rose to national fame six years ago on a call for unifying America’s blue and red states.

Standing before a divided Congress on Tuesday, with Democrats and Republicans seated side by side in a nod to comity, he delivered the appeal for unity many were expecting him to give.

“Governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties,” he said. “We will move forward together, or not at all.”

But the political reality behind his rhetoric was light-years removed from his lofty 2004 Democratic convention debut, when the then-Senate candidate from Illinois declared that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.”

Now, a president at mid-term, he’s wiser and battle-scarred, and appears to have bounced back from the November elections that delivered the worst political licking of his administration.

With a much-discussed, and thus far successful, turn toward the center, he has strengthened his hand as he prepares to battle Republicans in Congress and launch his re-election campaign.

Another president might have used the occasion to reset his relationship with the voters. Bill Clinton, in his 1995 State of the Union, after Republicans took over Congress, frankly admitted he had “made my mistakes” and learned “the importance of humility.”

Obama did no such thing.

Last month’s bipartisan tax deal with Republicans and his recent address to a memorial service for victims of the Tucson, Ariz., shootings have lifted his popularity, polls show. Emboldened by his rebound, he seems prepared to go after Republicans with renewed confidence.

As much as anything, Tuesday night was about winning this year, a pivotal time of testing for Obama and Republicans that sets the stage for the 2012 presidential election. Stripped of flowery rhetoric and pleas for bipartisan cooperation, his speech was something of a throw-down to conservative lawmakers.

“At stake right now is not who wins the next election,” Obama said, answering those who had described his remarks as an unofficial campaign kickoff.

Still, the broad outlines of an all-but-announced 2012 run were clearly visible: a renewed call to raise taxes on the very wealthy, a promise of more higher-education aid for the middle class, new federal initiatives in scientific research, energy technology and a renewed focus on jobs, in the form of fresh spending for road and bridge repair and high-speed rail construction.

For mainstream voters, particularly the independents whose mood swings dominate today’s politics, he offered a more tight-fisted, business-friendly approach to governing than he did in his first two years in office, which were heavy on big federal initiatives.

For conservatives, there were proposals to lower the corporate tax rate, reduce medical malpractice costs and let ROTC and military recruiters back on all college campuses. For those on the left, there was a new push for immigration reform, a pledge to protect Social Security from efforts to privatize or slash benefits and a vow to start withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan next summer.