It sounded conciliatory, even friendly, brimming with the outward trappings of a shift to the center, but President Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union speech was, at its core, an unmistakably partisan challenge to congressional Republicans.
Obama, facing a chamber full of Democrats and Republicans mingling together in a show of bipartisan comity, began by telling the new GOP majority in the House that “we will move forward together or not at all.”
There were concessions aplenty as well — free-trade deals, a simplification of the corporate tax code, an earmark ban he once ridiculed and a push to get colleges to accept the ROTC on their campuses. Plus, he mostly avoided mentioning a host of issues that would offend them — comprehensive climate change legislation and gun control, to name two.
Yet for all the surface civility, Obama wants to pick a fight, or at least draw a stark contrast, between his jobs-centric philosophy and the GOP’s determination to cut government first and ask questions later.
That’s why he proposed an ambitious slate of new spending initiatives — he calls them “investments” — setting up an extraordinary mini-campaign this spring in which Obama and the GOP will put their cases before the American people. (See: So much for civility)
“The president believes the American people care more about creating jobs and the investment it takes to prepare us to compete and win in the global economy,” said former Obama adviser Neera Tanden, chief operating officer for the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank with close ties to the White House.
“The Republicans basically think the election was a mandate just to slash — even in areas like education that are tied to jobs. He’s betting the Republicans are wrong.”
Since the midterm elections, Obama has signaled his willingness to deal with the deficit but has warned against excessive cuts. He did not pay his respects to the issue until he was 35 minutes into his hourlong speech, a conventional laundry-list address that featured little of the passion or poignancy of his memorial speech in Tucson, Ariz., two weeks ago. (See: Giffords was target of shooter; accomplice suspected)
“I recognize that some in this chamber have already proposed deeper cuts, and I’m willing to eliminate what we can honestly afford to do without. But let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable,” said Obama, staking out an opening position in what is likely to be an epic budget battle this spring.
“Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine,” warned the president, buoyed by recent polls showing his approval spiking in the low 50s.
“It may feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long until you feel the impact.” (See: VIDEO: Highlights of the address)
To Republicans, those were fighting words. They have proposed slashing spending by at least $100 billion a year, and Obama responded Tuesday night by offering unspecified savings through the closing of some tax loopholes, modest budget cuts and a five-year freeze in discretionary spending that will save $40 billion a year. (See: Ryan rebuttal: Cut spending, shrink government)
The immediate flash point in this struggle may be the GOP leadership’s threat to block a necessary increase in the nation’s $14 trillion debt ceiling, though the two parties will ultimately have to compromise to keep the federal government from defaulting on its debt.
How that endgame plays out could be determined by Obama’s success — or failure — to sell his vision of recovery to voters. Republicans were certainly not buying it last night.
“I think talking about new government spending is to have missed the message that the voters sent on Nov. 2,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who quarterbacked his party’s campaign committee to a six-seat pickup in the midterms.
“We’ve had a lot of spending — we’re borrowing 42 cents on every dollar, and that just simply can’t continue. So we ought to get the spending and the debt under control, then we can talk about other issues, but I don’t think the president had the emphasis I would have liked. … And I think we’ve learned from past State of the Union speeches, it’s not what people say, it’s what they do.”
South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint, the unofficial leader of the tea party movement in the upper chamber, said the speech “should have been called a ‘State of the Stimulus,’ and the president should have admitted that it failed. … Two years after the president’s nearly trillion-dollar government stimulus, unemployment has increased and remains high, families and businesses are still struggling and our national debt continues to skyrocket.”
Then there was Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), who apparently didn’t get the civility memo, tweeting: “Mr. President, you don’t believe in the Constitution. You believe in socialism.”
Obama hits the road Wednesday for a jobs-focused town hall in Wisconsin and plans to make similar sojourns about once a week for the foreseeable future. A small army of Cabinet members are also fanning out to make the case for the new jobs push.
What’s not clear is precisely how much house money Obama is planning to bet on his budget gambit.
State of the Union speeches aren’t spreadsheets — but this one was particularly light on numbers; there weren’t even ballpark estimates on the number of jobs that various projects would create or how much they would cost. Even when Obama did provide specifics, he was careful not to put too fine a point on things, asserting that a series of free-trade agreement would “support” — not create or save — 320,000 American jobs.
Nor did he provide estimates of how much his various deficit-cutting measures would save. Those numbers, aides say, will have to wait for Feb. 14, when the president submits his fiscal year 2012 budget.
The lack of details left even administration defenders at something of a loss to defend the president.
“It’s kind of weird to couple all this new spending with a commitment to deficit reduction, especially when you don’t have any of the actual numbers,” said a senior Democratic congressional aide.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a fiscal conservative, said he planned to huddle with several Republicans when “we get a budget.” He praised Obama’s tone but added, “You know, there’s a long way to go.”
Several Democrats, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed disappointment that Obama didn’t capitalize on the goodwill after his moving memorial speech in Tucson days after a gunman shot Rep.
Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and killed six bystanders. Obama acknowledged her empty chair, but he quickly pivoted to maintaining America’s capacity to compete economically against other countries.
The energy in the hall, while positive, was short of electric — sapped perhaps by the leaking of Obama’s entire text two hours before the speech and the fact that many of his spending proposals had already been unveiled in previous speeches.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) told POLITICO his office has always kept track of standing ovations during State of the Union speeches and Tuesday’s event had “the least amount of any president in the 25 years I’ve been here.”
Still, Obama’s positive tone and commitment to compromise seem to have gone over well with some viewers, culling nearly universal kudos from a bipartisan focus group conducted by Democratic-allied polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.
The firm monitored the reactions of swing voters and unmarried women from Colorado as they watched the speech. Thirty percent of the test group approved of Obama before the address — rising to 56 percent at the end.