With the 2012 campaign looming on the horizon, it was a speech that seemed to reflect one of former President Clinton’s famous political credos: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Among other things, Mr. Obama called for cutting corporate taxes, spreading high-speed Internet to all corners of the nation, and boosting spending on research, technology, and education in an effort to keep the US ahead of China, Europe, and other economic competitors.
“We measure progress by the success of our people. By the jobs they can find and the quality of life those jobs offer,” said Obama.
What America does better than any other nation is to spark the creativity and imagination of its people, said the president. The US is the nation that put cars in the world’s driveways and computers on the world’s desks; it’s the nation of Edison and the Wright Brothers and Google and Facebook.
“Innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It’s how we make a living,” Obama said.
In fact, Obama spent so much time talking about the need to revitalize the economy, build US infrastructure, and bolster national competitiveness that the US Chamber of Commerce gave the speech qualified support.
“While there will be differences on how to achieve these goals, we must find enough common ground to ensure America’s greatness into the 21st century,” said Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Thomas Donahue in response to the State of the Union.
A new political reality
Of course, the context of Tuesday’s speech is far different than that faced by the administration prior to Republican victories in the 2010 midterm elections. With the GOP in control of the House, the White House knows that its era of powering legislation through Congress is over. In the wake of the sobering attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona, both parties are toning down their political rhetoric.
As he looked out at the lawmakers assembled in the House chamber, Obama saw many pairs of Republican and Democratic lawmakers sitting together – a symbol of a new bipartisanship, perhaps, or at least a new respect for the folks on the other side of the aisle.
“What comes of this moment is up to us,” said Obama. “What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.”
Not all was bipartisan harmony, of course. Republicans rejected Obama’s call for a burst of investment in education, high-tech research, and high-speed rail, and other infrastructure projects as unsustainable spending increases at a time of record deficits.
At odds over the deficit
The Republican chosen to give the official State of the Union response, House Budget Committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, said that “the days of business as usual must come to an end.... Endless borrowing is not a strategy; spending cuts have to come first.”
Obama did propose a five-year freeze on domestic spending, including the Pentagon, which would save some $400 billion over the next decade. But annual domestic spending only represents about 12 percent of the budget, said Obama. He added that getting federal spending under control means reducing spending on Medicare and Medicaid, which are the biggest contributors to the longterm deficit – and then pivoted to a defense of his health-care reform bill.
Though State of the Union addresses are often split almost evenly between domestic issues and foreign affairs, Obama’s speech Tuesday spent only about 20 percent of its words on overseas issues.
He appeared to end once and for all any speculation that a significant US military presence in Iraq will last beyond the end of this year. He repeated that this July the US will begin to bring troops home from Afghanistan. And he noted that recently the people of South Sudan, with US assistance, were able to vote for independence after years of war.
“We must never forget that the things we’re struggled for, and fought for, live in the hearts of people everywhere,” said Obama.