WASHINGTON – Confronting a divided government, President Barack Obama struck notes of conciliation and challenge in his State of the Union speech, suggesting new spending cuts while advocating increased outlays for education, mass transit and infrastructure.
Obama’s hourlong address Tuesday night sought to repel anticipated Republican efforts to roll back his party’s signature legislative achievements, including the health care overhaul, during the next two years.
He emphasized the need for bipartisanship, calling on Democrats and Republicans to work together to create new jobs. “We will move forward together, or not at all – for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics,” Obama said.
In the overarching theme of his speech, the president told the lawmakers: “The future is ours to win.”
Obama called for a five-year freeze on nonmilitary discretionary spending in a bid to help reduce the deficit and said he would veto any bill containing pet projects known as “earmarks.” He also endorsed $78 billion in Pentagon cuts and said he would consider other reductions.
But he defended his record thus far and warned that while he may agree to tweaks to his legislative record, his top priority in the next two years will be to preserve that work. Especially on his landmark health care law, he called for changes where needed, but warned he would oppose repeal.
“Instead of refighting the battles of the last two years, let’s fix what needs fixing and move forward,” he said.
Instead of the fractious reception he received in his previous State of the Union speech, Obama encountered a more somber welcome in which most lawmakers wore black and white ribbons in honor of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and the other victims of the Tucson shooting rampage. Republicans and Democrats sat side by side in a show of unity.
Nonetheless, to Republican critics, his call for government investment sounded like another spending package at a time when deep cuts are needed. “That’s the real secret to job creation, not borrowing and spending more money in Washington,” said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who delivered the GOP response.
Rather than promising a near-term solution to chronic unemployment, Obama devoted much of the speech to the threat of competition for jobs from overseas, urging programs to “out-innovate, out-educate and out-build” the rest of the world.
Obama outlined an agenda for the second half of his term in office that tracks closely with his re-election strategy, in which he is staking out a middle ground politically.
With several promises, Obama sought to address perceptions that he spent too freely during his first two years in power and is unconcerned by a budget deficit that now stands at more than $1.4 trillion. His proposals include freezing federal spending not devoted to national security, which aides said would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over 10 years.
Obama signaled that he would protect his signature education program, called “Race to the Top,” which offers grant money to schools that make strides in educating students.
He drew a protective barrier around the basic social safety net, cautioning that he would not slash spending at the expense of “our most vulnerable citizens.”
He added: “Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine.”
That message is rooted in a hard-eyed calculation by White House aides. Grand new spending programs and initiatives are unrealistic given the political realignment on Capitol Hill. Instead, the White House wants to preserve programs that resurgent Republicans see as targets ripe for elimination.
In some ways, the speech was in keeping with Obama’s move to the center following the Democrats’ midterm election losses. He called for reducing the corporate tax rate, freezing nondefense discretionary spending and approval of free trade agreements that might expand U.S. exports.
Obama showed a willingness to buck members of his party. He said he would veto any bill carrying an “earmark” – a special spending project that lawmakers pass with little scrutiny or discussion. That stand sets up a potential showdown with one of Obama’s closest allies, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who defends earmarks.
Equally revealing was what Obama did not say. He said very little new or different about the war in Afghanistan, the effort to halt the Iranian nuclear programs or other foreign policy hot spots.
He made no mention of climate change legislation, which business interests oppose and which stands little chance of passing in any case. Since his midterm election setback, Obama has tried to repair his relationship with the corporate world.
Obama also sought to reassure members of his liberal base, who’ve bristled over some of his post-midterm moves. He said he was committed to overhauling the nation’s immigration laws and finding a pathway to legal status for the millions of people living in the U.S. illegally. The odds of that happening are low, as Obama essentially conceded.
GOP congressional leaders dismissed Obama’s proposals for spending reductions as inadequate, even though their own party is divided over budget cuts.
“That’s probably not going to inspire a lot of people who want to see meaningful efforts to reduce spending and reduce the debt,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a potential presidential challenger in 2012.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., was more pointed in his critique.
“That word ‘investments’ sure does sound good,” he said. “But it’s really just a fancy way of saying ‘increase government spending.’ ”
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