The GOP's Obama Envy

From left: Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Mitch Daniels of Indiana deliver State of the State addresses to their respective legislatures on Jan. 11.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a governor in possession of the statehouse—and also in want of his party’s presidential nomination—must necessarily use his pre-election-year State of the State address as a platform for partisan showboating. After all, what better opportunity will he have, at least before primary season begins, to brag about his accomplishments and bill himself as the ideal alternative to the other party’s presumptive nominee?

Which is why it was such a surprise that when three of the GOP’s top 2012 prospects—Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—seized the spotlight Tuesday to weigh in on the states of their respective states, they wound up sounding less like bloodthirsty Republican warriors than (believe it or not) the Democrat they might be running against: President Barack Obama. The echoes weren’t intentional, nor were they particularly overt. But they were striking enough to raise the question of whether the GOP will still have enough gas in its tank to beat Obama by the time November 2012 actually rolls around.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like Daniels, Barbour, and Christie spent their speeches praising the president. Barbour was the most critical, slamming Obama’s health-care mandates, financial services law, proposed cap-and-trade plan, and “gigantic deficits” for “imped[ing] hiring,” “stymie[ing] investment,” “stifl[ing] economic growth,” and “driving up the cost of energy.” Daniels bemoaned the “national economic ebb tide that continues to leave too many boats stuck in the muck”: Christie hinted that not all of those “entrusted to serve the public” are “stand[ing] up and fight[ing] for what really needs to be done at this critical time.” And all three governors contrasted their own fiscal tightfistedness with Washington, D.C.’s recession-era profligacy.

But when each governor pivoted away from the past and started spelling out his priorities for the year ahead, it was remarkable to hear how much he and Obama had in common. Christie summed up Tuesday’s common themes most concisely. “One, we must stick to the course of fiscal discipline,” he said. “Two, we must fix our pension and health benefit systems in order to save them. And three, we must reform our schools.” The governors agreed that the first item could best be accomplished, as Christie put it, by “holding the line on taxes” while “asking for shared sacrifice in cutting what we don’t need so that we can invest in what we absolutely do need.” The second, meanwhile, meant different things in different states—reinvesting a Medicaid surplus in Mississippi; raising the retirement age and increasing public-employee contributions in New Jersey—but with a shared emphasis on efficiency and modernization. And nowhere was the consensus stronger than on the issue that all three governors listed as their top priority for 2011: education. Less tenure, more charter schools, more teacher evaluation, and higher teacher pay—Barbour, Daniels, and Christie hit each of the major reform-movement notes. Christie praised former Washington public-schools chief Michelle Rhee, who was in the audience; Daniels gave a shout-out to Obama himself.

While the president has yet to unveil his agenda for the coming year—the State of the Union is still two weeks away—the early buzz suggests that it’s going to look a lot like his potential Republican rivals’. Two of his 2008 campaign promises—immigration reform and climate-change legislation—won’t survive the Republican-controlled House or garner 60 votes in the newly divided Senate, so chances are he won’t pursue them with much gusto. Instead, Obama is likely to devote his energy to measures that have a real shot at passage. When asked about Social Security reform—a measure recommended by the 2010 bipartisan deficit commission—Obama’s chief economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, said “let’s not automatically rule everything out before we begin.” So don’t be surprised if the White House suggests an increase in the retirement age or decrease in benefits in the coming months. Same goes for spending cuts. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already proposed to slash $78 billion from the Pentagon’s budget, and with Republicans angling to reduce discretionary spending to 2008 levels, Obama has little choice but to offer up his own plan. Education, meanwhile, is sure to top the president’s list in 2011, if only because it’s one of few areas where his preferred approach—see Race to the Top—already aligns with the GOP’s

If the administration does, in fact, pursue this agenda—spending cuts, pension tweaks, and education reform—it’s not hard to imagine potential Republican candidates like Daniels, Barbour, and Christie puttering into 2012 without much powder left in their kegs. Sure, they can continue to hammer away at “Obamacare” and the stimulus package. But those issues were already litigated in the 2010 midterms, and they’re unlikely to retain their potency in the sort of improved economic climate that most experts are forecasting for the year ahead. Generalized critiques of Obama’s “out-of-control” spending may not pack the punch they once did, either. In 2009, spending on new legislation added about $766 billion to the deficit; in 2010, that number dropped to about $16.6 billion. Given the gridlock in Congress, it’s almost certain fall further in 2011.

Of course, the economic recovery could always stall out. Job growth could continue to lag. And Obama could overreach. But if the current patterns hold, Republican candidates like Daniels, Barbour, and Christie might not have a lot of powerful new material for their attack ads come 2012—especially if they’ve spent 2011 following the same playbook as the president.

Andrew Romano is a Senior Writer for Newsweek. He reports on politics, culture, and food for the print and web editions of the magazine and appears frequently on CNN and MSNBC. His 2008 campaign blog, Stumper, won MINOnline's Best Consumer Blog award and was cited as one of the cycle's best news blogs by both Editor & Publisher and the Deadline Club of New York.

This originally appeared in The Daily Beast.

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