If you heard a loud “gulp” Tuesday night after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, it probably came from Republican political strategists as they realized their party’s odds of capturing the White House this fall are getting longer. Obama may be no Ronald Reagan, but he’s no Jimmy Carter, either.

The obligatory list of accomplishments and initiatives was embellished with bits and pieces of what will likely be Obama’s standard campaign speech. At the heart of his argument for a second term is his assertion that the American dream of upward mobility has been hijacked — that the rich and the powerful have rigged our economic and political systems to favor their interests over those of the average citizen.

Obama sounded this theme several times, perhaps most effectively when he decried policies that allow billionaire Warren Buffett to pay a lower income-tax rate than does his longtime secretary, Debbie Bosanek, who sat with first lady Michelle Obama in her box Tuesday night:

“We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get a tax break I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit or somebody else has to make up the difference — like a senior on a fixed income, or a student trying to get through school, or a family trying to make ends meet.

“That’s not right. Americans know that’s not right. They know that this generation’s success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to the future of their country, and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility.”

There are some Republicans who can’t wait to take the issue of Buffett’s tax rate vs. Bosanek’s head-on. They are eager to argue that one of the world’s richest men deserves to pay a lower rate because his income derives from job-creating investments. These Republicans presumably consider his secretary a mere salaried employee who spends her money on such fripperies as, you know, food, shelter, clothing and transportation.

“The issue I think that’s going to play out this election is that question of Warren Buffett’s secretary,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Wednesday on CNN. “We want her to make more money, we want her to have more hope for the future. … [But] this notion that somehow the income that Warren Buffett makes is the same as a wage income for his secretary, we know that’s not the same.”

In other words, it’s not just that the rich are better than the rest of us, but also that their money is better than our money.

Is this really an argument the Republican presidential nominee is going to make? Not in so many words, surely. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum seem to understand that taking Cantor’s line would constitute political malpractice.

Mitt Romney may get it, too, but he has little room to maneuver. Romney’s wealth must be very special, indeed, to deserve vacations in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands, where he likes to park his money. But I digress.

Perhaps more of a political problem, from the GOP’s point of view, is Obama’s riff on shared responsibility. Republicans seem eager to double down on a “greed is good” ethos that has more resonance when the economy is booming, real estate values are soaring and everybody feels rich. Obama, by contrast, envisions a return to an America where the successful and fortunate lend a helping hand to those down on their luck, rather than coldly leave them behind. This seems much more in tune with the times.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, delivering the Republican response, offered an alternative that many voters might find cogent and unthreatening. He didn’t provide a lot of new ideas — basically, Daniels supports the same laissez-faire policies that got us into this crisis — but at least he didn’t sound like some kind of Ayn Rand acolyte who believes that economic Darwinism must always be allowed to run its course.

Daniels isn’t running for president, though, and the pragmatic conservatism he described — one that imagines a role for government — is out of touch with the radicalism that dominates his party. The Republicans who are running the party laugh at the concepts of fairness and collective responsibility. Soon they may find the joke’s on them.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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