President Obama's speech to Congress was both a challenge and a threat.
His goal was to challenge Republican legislators to drop their opposition to his economic agenda and if they continue to block him, serve notice that or he will make their intransigence a key issue in the 2012 campaign.
Obama urged Congress to pass his new $447 billion package of tax cuts and new government spending which he said would help revive the economy and create jobs. At the same time, he offered a warning.
"The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy," he president said.
Some economists argue that it's really too late for the administration to get much passed by Congress that would really help the economy in time for the 2012 elections. But Democratic strategists say Obama needs go show that he is at least trying to improve current conditions and help the estimated 14 million unemployed Americans and at the same time portray the GOP as hard-hearted and interested mostly in blocking his agenda and undermining his re-election.
Republican leaders seem well aware of this strategy. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, said the GOP is willing to accept some of Obama's ideas, but left the details to be worked out later.
Obama's warning was clear. "These are real choices we have to make. and I'm pretty sure I know what most Americans would choose,'" he said. "It's not even close."
There is another political peril for Obama. If he looks like he cannot get Washington to bend to his will, he will seem ineffective and hapless as a leader. And since Americans have always valued competence and strength in their presidents, this would be a severe blow to his prospects to win a second term.