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In his new column, “For Obama, Pro-Business Populism Is No Oxymoron,” Jonathan Alter argues that President Obama managed to focus on economic fairness while remaining business-friendly during his State of the Union address:

If 2011 was defined by a debate over the national debt, 2012 looks to be focused more on fairness, which is just the way President Barack Obama wants it. The trick for him — the balance he was trying to strike in his State of the Union Address — is to come across as a pro-business populist.

That may sound like an oxymoron (and “progressive” is a more accurate description of Obama than “populist”), but it fits this president and these times. There’s nothing anti-capitalist about wanting to help businesses that help America and to penalize (through the tax code) those that hurt the country by not paying their fair share and by taking jobs overseas.

You wouldn’t know from some of the commentary that this was a pro-business address, with a theme (an economy “Built to Last”) lifted from a marketing campaign for General Motors Co. trucks. The slogan does double duty as a sign of Obama’s investment in education and other engines of middle-class growth and as a reminder that the despised automobile bailouts were a success, with GM now on top again as the world’s leading car company.

When “Engine Charlie” Wilson, a former GM chief executive officer serving as defense secretary, famously said at his confirmation hearings in 1953 that “what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa,” he was savaged. Now it’s practically Obama’s policy. Congressional Republicans, by contrast, have been reduced to pillorying GM’s chairman over the Chevy Volt, a car wrongly stigmatized as unsafe.

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