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Even a lame duck can sometimes fly with one wing

President Obama, intent upon disproving notions that he’s just a lame duck, strode confidently before Congress Tuesday night and demonstrated his determination to fly using just his left wing.

For one hour and one minute, he actually seemed to be flying. Buoyed by his soaring rhetoric and new uplifting polls, this left-winged president seemed able to circle the Capitol dome.

But that of course only left him right back where he started. Which made it clear to all of us — and probably even his White House strategists — that his proposals will never fly with just a left wing to power them.

So you might think that reality would be terribly frustrating for a proud president. But that would be true only if you are assuming his address was really just about enacting all of his powerfully stated progressive ideas that are laden with middle-class populism.

But of course his speech wasn’t all about enacting those ideas that are aimed at helping middle class families cope with daily problems of raising children and helping Middle Americans get educations so they can find jobs.

My guess is that the president wasn’t floating his ideas as dome-circling exercises but as his own presidential legacy laps.

He wants to be known as the president who proposed a soaring agenda of progressive ideas designed to help America’s middle class that is being left farther behind America’s richest 1 percent. New statistics show the economy is growing and creating jobs at a rate not seen in the 21st century. And (guess what!) polls are now showing Obama approval ratings are climbing as well.

So even if left-wing power can never get Obama’s new proposals off the ground in the new Republican Congress, Obama now clearly hopes history will herald him as a president who at least proposed and pushed progressive ideas based on core Middle American values and goals.

What are those? Helping families with two wage earners afford childcare. Making two-year community college educations cost free. And paying for all that by closing tax deduction loopholes and raising taxes for America’s richest 1 percent.

All are rooted in middle-class values and goals. All of them could have been the intellectual property of a Republican think tank visionary. (As Obama’s health reform was.)

Interestingly, Obama twice pointed out specifics he will “veto” if the Republican Congress votes to repeal Obamacare, roll back new restrictions on banks, or reverse immigration policies without comprehensively fixing the broken system.

But he carefully didn’t say the same about the controversial Keystone pipeline, which conservatives champion and some progressives oppose. Instead, he used Keystone as a rationale for doing more, saying: “…let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year….”

This is a classic Washington controversy — deceptively blown out of proportion by both sides. I’m for building the pipeline (so is Bill Clinton), but I haven’t fallen for either side’s exaggerations.

Not the enviro-liberals’ doomsday alarms: Yes, environmental damage might result from future pipeline leaks; but without a pipeline, accidents during truck and rail transporting of oil from Canada to a Gulf of Mexico refinery could also cause environmental damage.

Not the conservatives’ job-creating cons: Republicans wildly exaggerated Keystone’s job-creating. The thousands of jobs it will initially create will almost all disappear after it is built in two years. Only an estimated 35 to 50 pipeline jobs will be permanent.

That’s why it wasn’t merely frustrating but infuriating to hear the same old con voiced by Tuesday night’s designated Republican State of the Union responder. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), just three weeks on the job, shamefully cited “the Keystone jobs bill” (no, it’s a pipeline bill) as her big idea of “serious job-creation ideas you deserve.”

Unfortunately, Republicans wasted their official response by failing to deliver a Grand Old Party alternative agenda. But one exists. A group of conservative think tankers who call themselves the “Young Guns” published a new book, titled “Room to Grow,” that’s filled with new conservative ideas; it can be found on the group’s online YG Network.

So Tuesday night belonged to a lame duck Democrat who was badly outnumbered in the congressional chamber and was empowered only by his own left wing. Yet he delivered a powerful appeal to America’s struggling middle class.

In politics, where timing often trumps even truth, Obama should be asking himself two questions: Why didn’t I make that speech six months earlier? Or maybe even six years earlier?

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at

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