State Of State, State Of Union

They were talking to two very different audiences last week: Neil Abercrombie to a house full of friends, the 67 fellow Democrats who dominate both houses of Hawaii’s state Legislature, and Barack Obama to a United States Senate where his fellow Democrats own only a slim majority and to a House of Representatives where Republicans boast a decided, and since the 2010 election almost rabid Tea Party tasting caucus.

Thus their messages differed, as well. Abercrombie attempted reconciliation with a Legislature he confused (or ignored, depending upon the witness). The confusion proved so great that less than nine months into his term, four of his top aides felt compelled to resign. Abercrombie’s attempts to tax retirement incomes and soda pop, among other things, left him with one of the worst approval ratings of any governor in the country.

So the governor sought to reconcile: “I want to thank the Legislature for your collaboration. Thank you to the public for weathering through … difficult choices. Thank you, especially to our state employees, who agreed to labor savings and additional payments for health benefits.”

And to those who dealt with the effects of budget cuts: “Mahalo plenty to each and every one of you.”

Obama sought not to reconcile, but to launch his re-election campaign. Its theme would be fairness: legislation that would require millionaires to pay at a minimum tax rate of 30 percent, that mortgage holders be allowed to refinance at lower interest rates, that colleges keep their tuition down in order to receive federal money. The list was long.

“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the rules,” said Obama.

He further promised to oppose anyone in the audience who sought “to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.”

Fighting words, those, and as part of a speech calling for the wealthy to pay their fair share, downright “class warfare” in the rhetoric of Republicans across the land.

But Obama had to do it. For the past three years congressional Republicans have opposed practically every attempt he’s made at collaboration. In the process, they’ve whipped him around on his stimulus bill, banking regulation, health care reform and more. To many in his core Democratic constituency, he’s often looked weak. He had to show some fight in his State of the Union speech and, if he’s to be re-elected, he’ll have to show it every day from now until November.

Abercrombie, by contrast, will have to demonstrate a more ameliorative side for the next 11 months and beyond. That may not be easy. The day after his State of the State the governor went on the morning television shows, where he compared negotiations over future Pro Bowls to having a gun held to the state’s head by the NFL. A similar comment a year ago began Abercrombie’s plunge in the polls.

Politics is oratory, maybe 25 percent, up to 35 percent in the case of stem-winders in the Abercrombie-Obama mold. But it’s also personality, a solid 40 percent, and personality is front and center every day of a politician’s life. Abercrombie needs to cool his, Obama to heat it up.