By Ben Feller/The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Pleading for unity in a newly divided government, President Barack Obama implored Democratic and Republican lawmakers to rally behind his vision of economic revival for an anxious nation, declaring in his State of the Union address Tuesday night: “We will move forward together or not at all.”
To a television audience in the millions, Obama addressed a Congress sobered by the assassination attempt against one if its own members, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Her seat sat empty, and many lawmakers of competing parties sat together in a show of support and civility. Yet differences were still evident, as when Democrats stood to applaud his comments on health care and tax cuts while Republicans next to them sat mute.
In his best chance of the year to connect with the country, Obama devoted most of his hour-long prime-time address to the economy, the issue that dominates concern in a nation still reeling from a monster recession — and the one that will shape his own political fortunes in the 2012 election.
The president unveiled an agenda of carefully balanced political goals: a burst of spending on education, research, technology and transportation to make the nation more competitive, alongside pledges, in the strongest terms of his presidency, to cut the deficit and smack down spending deemed wasteful to America.
Yet he never explained how he’d pull that off or what specifically would be cut.
Obama did pledge to veto any bill with earmarks, the term used for lawmakers’ pet projects. Boehner and other Republicans applauded.
But Obama’s promise drew a rebuke from his own party even before he spoke, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the president had “enough power already” and that plans to ban earmarks were “a lot of pretty talk.”
Obama’s proposals Tuesday night included cutting the corporate tax, providing wireless services for almost the whole nation, consolidating government agencies and freezing most discretionary federal spending for the next five years. In the overarching theme of his speech, the president told the lawmakers: “The future is ours to win.”
Yet, Republicans have dismissed his “investment” proposals as merely new spending.
Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, giving the GOP’s response, said the nation was at a tipping point leading to a dire future if federal deficits aren’t trimmed. Ryan was to promote budget cuts as essential to responsible governing, speaking from the hearing room of the House Budget Committee, which he now chairs.
Ryan’s address was part of an unusual two-pronged retort to the president’s speech. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota also delivered a response — on behalf, she said, of the tea party. Bachmann chairs the House Tea Party Caucus.
“For two years President Obama made promises just like the ones we heard him make tonight,” Bachmann said, according to prepared remarks. “Yet we still have high unemployment, devalued housing prices and the cost of gasoline is skyrocketing.”
The Senate’s Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said the president had gotten the message from the November midterm elections and “changed the tone and the rhetoric from the first two years.”
Obama entered the House chamber to prolonged applause, and to the unusual sight of Republicans and Democrats seated next to one another rather than on different sides of the center aisle. And he began with a political grace note, taking a moment to congratulate Boehner, the new Republican speaker of the House.
Calling for a new day of cooperation, Obama said: “What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight but whether we can work together tomorrow.” On a night typically known for its political theater, the lawmakers sometimes seemed subdued, as if still in the shadow of the Arizona shootings.
Many in both parties wore black-and-white lapel ribbons, signifying the deaths in Tucson and the hopes of the survivors. Giffords’ husband was watching the speech from her bedside, as he held her hand. At times, Obama delivered lighter comments, seeming to surprise his audience with the way he lampooned what he suggested was the government’s illogical regulation of salmon.
Halfway through his term, Obama stepped into this moment on the upswing, with a series of recent legislative wins in his pocket and praise from all corners for the way he responded to the shooting rampage in Arizona. But he confronts the political reality is that he must to lead a divided government for the first time, with more than half of all Americans disapproving of the way he is handling the economy.
Over his shoulder a reminder of the shift in power on Capitol Hill: Boehner, in the seat that had been held by Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Obama conceded that everything he asked for would prompt more partisan disputes. “It will take time,” he said. “And it will be harder because we will argue about everything. The cost. The details. The letter of every law.”
Obama used the stories of some of the guests sitting with his wife, Michelle, to illustrate his points, including a small business owner who, in the tradition of American ingenuity, designed a drilling technology that helped rescue the Chilean miners.
The president cast the challenges facing the United States as bigger than either party. He said the nation was facing a new “Sputnik” moment, and he urged efforts to create a wave of innovation to create jobs and a vibrant economic future, just as the nation vigorously responded to the Soviets beating the U.S. into space a half century ago.
There was less of the see-saw applause typical of State of the Union speeches in years past, where Democrats stood to applaud certain lines and Republicans embraced others. Members of the two parties found plenty of lines worthy of bipartisan applause.
In a speech with little focus on national security, Obama appeared to close the door on keeping any significant U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond the end of the year. “This year, our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people while we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq,” the president said.
The president reiterated his call for a comprehensive immigration bill, although there appears little appetite for it Congress. Another big Obama priority that stalled and died in the last Congress, a broad effort to address global climate change, did not get a mention in the State of the Union. Nor did gun control or the struggling effort to secure peace in the Middle East.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT) contributed to this story.