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At midterm, Obama tries can-do slogan, details TBD

Associated Press Modified: January 29, 2011 at 12:13 pm •  Published: January 29, 2011
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WASHINGTON (AP) — There's a new slogan in town, and it's a winner.

At least that's what President Barack Obama has in mind.

The president unveiled his "Winning the Future" mantra in his State of the Union address, and now the upbeat but amorphous phrase is part of every speech, policy and pronouncement coming out of the administration. It's also emerged as a fat target for his Republican critics.

What's next on health care? Where to go on energy and education policy? How to improve the jobs picture? It's all about winning the future through innovation and determination, Obama and his aides have argued over the past few days.

There's no room for losers is the implicit flip side of the message.

"We've got to up our game," Obama told a crowd in Wisconsin.

The nation must ensure "America is still on top" in a decade, the president said on YouTube.

The country can't just lead, adds Vice President Joe Biden; it needs to "dominate."

It's a juiced-up way for Obama to frame his initiatives after two years in which even some of the president's supporters acknowledge that can-do verve sometimes was lacking from the conversation. What it means, though, is still TBD — to be determined.

After the long slog to stabilize the economy over the past two years, "clearly they've got polling that Americans are looking for someone that has more lofty goals and aspirations for America," says GOP strategist Rich Galen.

It seems that just in time for the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth, Morning in America has arrived once again.

Just in time for the 2012 presidential race, as well.

"People need some optimism, they need to feel hopeful," says Democratic strategist Karen Finney.

The "winning the future" construct, she says, couples a much-needed boost of optimism with the reality of the global competition that is afoot.

"It won't resonate with everyone," says Professor Wayne Fields, a Washington University expert on presidential rhetoric, "but it has pretty powerful implications in political life. Something has to be done is the view of most people. What this suggests is that he's at least going to act."

Republicans found much to mock in the president's theme, styling it as nothing more than new rhetorical packaging for the same wrong-headed approach to governing.

Newt Gingrich, who wrote a book titled "Winning the Future" back in 2005, found Obama's interpretation of the same phrase "depressing."

"Sadly, there is no Obama plan for winning the future," Gingrich wrote in response to the president's address. "There is an Obama plan for protecting big government, for pouring more money into broken bureaucracies, for borrowing several trillion more from the Chinese dictatorship. President Obama is on a path to lose the future while pretending to change things."

Sarah Palin, in a post on Facebook and public comments, seized on the acronym "WTF" to suggest another meaning altogether, and said the White House "still just doesn't get it."

Obama's vision, Palin said, is of a centralized government that declares "we shall be great and innovative and competitive, not by individual initiative, but by government decree."

All sides agree that the power of Obama's message will be determined by how he fleshes out what it means.

A big test will be Obama's release in mid-February of his proposed budget for the accounting year that begins Oct. 1.

"He's set a pretty high bar and now he's got to have something to back it up with," said the GOP's Galen. "I don't think he's got very much time to turn the rhetoric into action Finney, the Democratic strategist, said that after the economic turmoil of the past two years, Obama has the opportunity to return the focus to the things he campaigned on.

"We're finally at the point where we can step back" and take a broader view of where the country is going, she said.

Underlying the back-over-forth over Obama's latest turn of phrase is a larger and longer-running debate over America's place in the world.

Palin said Obama's new pitch "seems to be the Obama administration's version of American exceptionalism — an 'exceptionally big government.'" Other Republicans eyeing the 2012 presidential race, too, have accused Obama of lacking a strong vision of America's rightful place in the world.

Obama, in turn, is offering optimistic talk about the potential of the American people in hopes of overcoming a sense of fatigue that set in over the past two years.

"In the popular mind, he lost them," says Fields.

Now, with the economy picking up, Fields adds, Obama has an opportunity to revive the public vision of a can-do American public that uses its freedom "to innovate, educate and move forward."

"To make this work," says Fields, "he'll have to bring us along with him not with a single speech but with a regular line of communication."