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.
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.
“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."
GOP reply: still too much government
In the Republican response, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin chided Obama and the Democratic leadership for what he called a belief that “government needs to increase its size and its reach, its price tag and its power.”
“Whether sold as ‘stimulus’ or repackaged as ‘investment,’ their actions show they want a federal government that controls too much; taxes too much; and spends too much in order to do too much,” said Congressman Ryan, the new chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Ryan is the author of a fiscal “roadmap” that includes cuts in entitlements, including Medicare and Social Security, but many in his party have not signed on and on Tuesday night he did not promote his own ideas for how to achieve the Republican ideal of limited government.
In the spotlight of national attention that goes along with the State of the Union, it may have been the smart political move, for both parties, not to go into the specifics of cuts, analysts say.
“The spending choices will be very difficult and contentious,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “There’s no political profit in getting too detailed, because the picture is so grim.”
The White House insists that specifics are in the works. Watch what Obama proposes when he releases his fiscal 2012 budget in three weeks, administration officials say.
Love that middle ground
In another much-telegraphed move, the president made clear pitches to the political center in his speech, another bow to the new reality in Congress – and to politically independent voters, some of whom have come back to Obama’s side after the popular compromises of last month’s lame-duck session of Congress.
Obama twinned his touting of the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with a call for all US college campuses to “open their doors” to military recruiters and ROTC. And he repeated his openness to medical malpractice reform, a proposal popular among Republicans, as he drew a bright line in the sand rejecting repeal of his signature achievement to date, sweeping health-care reform.
Obama even employed a little humor in defending the reform, which the House voted last week to repeal.
“Now, I have heard rumors that a few of you still have concerns about our new health-care law,” Obama said, grinning broadly and eliciting laughter.
Even as the mood in the House chamber conveyed a continuing sense of unity, following the assassination attempt Jan. 8 on Rep. Gabrielle Gifford (D) of Arizona, no one thinks the next year will be particularly easy or funny. Members of the House and Senate mixed up their usually partisan seating arrangement and sat next to one another, Republican next to Democrat. Chief Justice John Roberts also attended, after hinting he might not after last year’s contentious comment by Obama about a Supreme Court decision.
But the new reality of divided government has just begun, and the ability of Obama, the Democrats, and the Republicans to work together remains an open question.