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

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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."

It was then, in Reagan's first inaugural, that he uttered what would become one of the most memorable lines of his presidency, that "government is not the solution to our problem; government the problem."

Obama, in his embrace of government as a vehicle for good, represents a full turn away from Reaganism – and even in part from policies of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who declared in his 1996 address on the state of the Union that "the era of big government is over."

Now, as his second term begins, Obama is moving fast while the opposition is back on its heels. But here, the Obama-as-Reagan analogy might be a stretch. While the Republican Reagan had a good working relationship with Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill, Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R) haven't been able to deal.

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