WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama called for unity with newly empowered Republicans in a State of the Union policy speech that laid the foundation for the second half of his presidential term and next year’s fight for re-election.
Obama staked out territory in America’s political center. He defended programs dear to his Democratic base, including the federal Social Security pension program and his health care overhaul. He promised investments in clean energy technology and biomedical research and criticized tax cuts for wealthy Americans.
But he also backed some top priorities of Republicans, who took control of the House of Representatives this month. He called for cutting the corporate tax rate, freezing some federal spending, shaking up the federal bureaucracy and eliminating lawmakers’ pet projects.
He made a direct appeal for bipartisan lawmaking: “We will move forward together or not at all.” The White House released Obama’s prepared speech about an hour before he delivered it.
The nationally televised address before both chambers of Congress is always one of America’s most closely watched political events, but this year’s speech had extra drama.
For the first time in his two-year presidency, Obama was appearing before a divided Congress. After November elections that Obama has described as a “shellacking,”
Republicans narrowed the Democratic advantage in the Senate as well as taking control of the House of Representatives.
Obama, who has rebounded in opinion polls in recent weeks, was looking to position himself above politics, even as both parties maneuver for advantage ahead of the 2012 presidential vote.
Obama said the American people are counting on their leaders to create jobs in the United States.
“At stake right now is not who wins the next election,” Obama said. “After all, we just had an election.”
Obama focused on federal spending for education, innovation and infrastructure as ways the government can support America’s foundation and help businesses create jobs for a generation. He was pairing that with a call to reduce the federal debt and to make the government leaner.
On a night typically known for its political theater, the lawmakers sometimes seemed subdued. The speech came less than three weeks after Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was seriously wounded in a shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona, that killed six people.
A seat remained empty in honor of Giffords. Many in both parties wore black-and-white lapel pins, signifying the deaths in Tucson and the hopes for the survivors. Family members of some victims sat with first lady Michelle Obama.
The shooting, though its motives remain unclear, prompted a debate about overheated political rhetoric and the need to tone down Washington’s fierce partisanship. In an attempt at unity following the attack, many Democratic and Republican lawmakers broke with tradition and sat together.
But those gestures did not obscure the sharp political divide between the parties.
Differences were still evident, as when Democrats stood to applaud Obama’s comments on his health care law, while Republicans who want to repeal it sat mute next to them.
One of the most divisive issues is federal spending. Public concern about the growing federal deficit, now topping $14 trillion, was a defining force in the 2010 elections.
Spending has become the central issue for Republicans.
Obama was looking for the upper hand with a call for a five-year freeze on all discretionary government spending outside of national security, the White House said.
That would be almost identical to the freeze Obama called for in his address last year.
Ultimately it may have little effect, as Congress decides the budget on its own terms.
Indeed, the Republican-dominated House voted on Tuesday to return most domestic spending to 2008, pre-recession levels. The 256-165 vote came on a symbolic measure that put Republican lawmakers on record in favor of cutting $100 billion from Obama’s budget for the current year.
Republicans also chose one of their leading voices on spending cuts, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, to deliver the party’s televised response to Obama.
“We are at a moment, where if government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America’s best century will be considered our past century,” Ryan said.
While Obama’s speech included little on foreign affairs, he did announce he will visit Brazil, Chile and El Salvador in March. Obama also called on Congress to approve a recently negotiated free-trade agreement with South Korea as soon as possible.
Obama also said the US stands with the people of Tunisia and all people striving for democracy. The president said the will of the people in the North African country proved more powerful than the rule of a dictator. Tunisia’s autocratic leader, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country Jan. 14 after 23 years in power.