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Fratto: State of the Union? Love the One You're With

"Well there's a rose in the fisted glove
And the eagle flies with the dove
And if you can't be with the one you love, honey
Love the one you're with" -- Stephen Stills

Has President Obama ripped a page out of President Clinton's book to make a "move to the center"? Is it a feint? Is this newfound affection for the business community and pro-growth economic policy for real, or simply an appeal with an eye on re-election?

These are the questions dominating Washington pundits on the eve of President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday evening.

What we're actually seeing is a president taking a more practical tack to deal with a changed political landscape. He may not "love" the ones he's with, but he'll dance with them.

The comparisons with President Clinton and so-called "triangulation" are unavoidable, but not apt. President Clinton — before he became president — was a Democratic centrist, already well-aligned and associated with the dominant centrist economic views of that time, especially in the areas of welfare reform, investment, markets, and trade policy. These policy initiatives, while not easy to achieve, put Clinton in his political and intellectual comfort zone.

President Obama has no such centrist economic policy heritage, but he does have a pragmatic streak — one that, despite his obvious policy preferences and rhetoric, infuriates his more liberal base. That pragmatism is anchored deep on the left of liberal orthodoxy, and it reaches to the center only to capture the marginal additional vote necessary to pass legislation. From this perspective, nothing has changed. Employing it, the President was able to achieve passage of major legislation initiatives, even if they occasionally strayed from the purest goals of the "professional left".

Much has been made, for example, of President Obama's tax deal with congressional Republicans as evidence of a newfound centrist shift. It was nothing of the kind. Remember that President Obama likened the negotiations to a hostage-taking. He made a practical decision to accept the terms and to move on. This wasn't a shift; it was capitulation to the reality of the new political environment.

That environment now includes a House of Representatives in Republican hands, and a significantly diminished majority for Democrats in the Senate. A strategy of marginal centrist support is no longer possible. Anything but policy initiatives with strong centrist appeal will gather dust.

President Obama seems to be taking Stephen Stills' advice.

Tony Fratto, a CNBC contributor, is Managing Director of Hamilton Place Strategies – a strategic economic policy and communications firm based in Washington, DC. He is a former White House Deputy Press Secretary for the George W. Bush Administration and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/TonyFratto.