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Politics

A State of the Union Thaw in Washington

Parties make nice as Obama’s speech nears. But can it last?

The political climate in Washington is thawing a bit as President Obama’s State of the Union address nears.

The substance of debate hasn’t changed heading into Tuesday night’s speech; on a wide range of issues Obama and Republicans remain far apart. But the tone of the debate has changed markedly since the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat.

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That first point makes big legislative advances unlikely this year, although the second suggests the rhetoric will remain less rancorous on both sides of the aisle.

The address will give Obama momentum, at least for a while. With his poll numbers bouncing back--a majority of Americans now approve of the job he is doing as president--and the economy continuing to grow, Obama can take credit for a lot this year, even as little actually gets done.

The reason: He’ll tie the recovery and the bid to create jobs to all he says and does as he prepares to run for another term, and he’ll benefit as long as the recovery stays on track.

In his address, he’ll call for less spending and for cutting the obese federal deficit. But by framing the latter task as something that will take years to address and suggesting that big cuts proposed by the GOP will slow the economy, he can postpone any painful steps that might cost him support at the polls in 2012.

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The same goes for tax reform. He’ll talk about it all year, laying down a marker on an issue the GOP wants as its own without having to identify which prized write-offs to eliminate.

In terms of the big picture, he’ll paint himself as a lover of compromise, a moderate eager to go along to get something done. All the while, he’ll quietly hope Tea Party-leaning newcomers and veteran Republicans fight among themselves over the deficit and spending cuts. He and other Democrats are willing, indeed eager, to allow that particular fight to drag on for months.

Most Republicans know they must demonstrate an ability to work with Obama, and soon. The GOP lawmakers will dial back the tone, as they’ve already done on health care, while they look to identify smaller compromises that won’t be perceived as sellouts. They will also lay out their own agenda on some larger measures that won’t pass, setting the stage for making them issues in next year’s elections.

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The need to raise the U.S. debt ceiling in coming months will offer one vehicle for compromise. The GOP will go along, eventually, because the ceiling has to be raised, but it will win a pledge to curb spending in return for enough votes to raise the limit.

They’ll get other chances to find common ground with the highway spending and cybersecurity bills, legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration and some energy investment measures that stop short of controversial cap-and-trade legislation dealing with emissions.

The biggest potential source of campaign fodder for Republicans is the federal budget for fiscal year 2012. If, as expected, both parties agree to freeze spending for most programs, Republicans can say they forced Democrats to alter their big-spending ways following the 2010 elections.

Both sides will quietly OK funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither party wants to be seen as weak on national security or against the troops.

For Republicans and Democrats alike, moderation is key in the post-shooting environment. They’ll make their points firmly, not ballistically, starting with reactions to Obama’s speech Tuesday night and continuing well into this year.

The big question is whether the tenuous truce can survive the friction of the coming election.

The reality: Probably not.

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