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Obama's State of the Union long on US greatness, short on austerity

President Obama called on America to maintain greatness through innovation. In his State of the Union address Tuesday, he also proposed cuts in defense and a partial budget freeze.

By Staff writer / January 26, 2011

President Obama smiles on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Tuesday, while delivering his State of the Union address.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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In laying out his vision for government amid a new political reality, President Obama appealed to Americans’ long-held sense of exceptionalism and played down the steep fiscal challenge ahead born of unsustainable federal spending.

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But then, this was the State of the Union address, and “prepare for pain” hardly makes for a stirring headline that reassures citizens – particularly those still looking for a job and wondering if the new economic reality will ever work for them.

Mr. Obama framed his speech Tuesday night around the theme of “winning the future,” a call to maintain American greatness through innovation in a rapidly changing world. He harkened back to the cold-war era, when the space race with the Soviet Union spurred invention and exploration – a race the United States eventually won, as it landed a man on the moon.

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“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” Obama said, referring to the Soviet satellite launch in 1957 that both scared and inspired Americans.

“Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the space race,” the president continued. “And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology, an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”

Obama also focused on investment in education and infrastructure as essential for the US not just to remain competitive in the global marketplace, but also to “win” – to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.”

The president followed immediately with a call to “take responsibility for our deficit,” and later laid out budget proposals, including a five-year freeze on all nondefense spending outside Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security and cuts in defense spending ($78 billion over five years, as laid out separately from the speech).

Obama was seeking to counter a Republican move to drive through deeper budget cuts, and with Republicans now in control of the House and its committees, they have a bigger platform from which promote their point of view.

But deficit hawks were quick to point out that neither Obama nor the Republicans, in their response to his State of the Union, got into specifics over what exactly they would cut. Obama’s proposed cuts barely make a dent in the trillion-plus-dollar deficit. The five-year freeze on discretionary spending would bring just $400 billion in savings over 10 years. The White House itself hinted at its smallness, by calling it a “down payment” toward reducing the deficit.

"It's great to hear the president support a five-year domestic discretionary freeze, and to argue for health-care cost controls, Social Security reform, and individual tax reform," says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "But the president needs to get specific, and he needs to show members of both parties that he is willing to spend his political capital on getting our fiscal situation under control."

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