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State of the Union: Can Obama still be transformational? (+video)

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In fact, Obama began to lay the rhetorical groundwork for his second term in the final press conference of his first term. The president, fresh off his success with Republicans two weeks earlier in extracting tax increases on the wealthy, warned Republican lawmakers not to demand a "ransom" in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.

"He made his attitude clear: no more Mr. Nice Guy," says Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "That was quite surprising to me, the way he came at the Republicans, and it struck me clearly that he was going to make them into his foil in the sense of a permanent campaign."

Within days, the Republicans changed course on the debt ceiling, agreeing to a short-term fix that postpones the issue until mid-May.

As for Obama's inaugural, it was intended to lay out the "vision," while the State of the Union message will provide the "details and blueprints" of his second-term agenda, then-senior adviser David Plouffe said before Inauguration Day. What Mr. Plouffe didn't say was that Obama was going to stun both his political allies and foes with a bracing call to action on a raft of divisive issues – climate change, immigration, gay rights, guns, energy, women's rights, and voting rights.

"It was a bona fide campaign speech," Mr. Hess says. "While that's unusual, it's not unique. That's in a sense what Reagan did in 1981."

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