On a night when the new, and still tenuous, mood of bipartisanship in Washington was on full display, President Barack Obama pushed forward an agenda of government spending and investment that is sure to be met with fierce resistance by an emboldened Republican Party in Congress.
Democrats and Republicans sat intermingled for the first time in memory during this State of the Union address, one of the most widely viewed events of most any political season.
But even the sight of Arizona Republican John McCain and Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry — the men who ended up on the losing side of the two most recent presidential contests — sitting side-by-side is unlikely to bridge the gulf between the two parties on the most pressing issues the nation faces.
Even as the president made his case for renewed investment in areas like education, infrastructure and research and development, GOP critics quickly noted that such an approach sounded discordant with one loud message from the November elections: the need to cut the nation’s debt.
In his response to Obama’s speech, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan warned of a day of reckoning — a sovereign debt crisis as in Greece. “We still have time … but not much time,” he said.
And potential 2012 Republican presidential contender Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said, “The president called for new spending, although he repeatedly called it ‘investment,’ but this is nothing more than increased Washington spending in the style of the failed stimulus.”
Even Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said she was “disappointed by the absence of an overall formula to deal with the very serious and worsening deficit.”
Here are some highlights from last night:
Our 'Sputnik moment'
The president evoked a “back to the future” theme with a Sputnik-inspired call for more investment in the technologies that would lead to more jobs for Americans, just as the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s caused a spin-off of economic growth and innovation.
“Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon. The science wasn't there yet. NASA didn't even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation's Sputnik moment.”
He called for more federal spending on biomedical research, information technology and energy technology.
The Sputnik shock of 1957 helped to spur an 80 percent increase in federal spending on education, training and social services between 1958 and 1962, but defense spending was still about 50 percent of all federal spending in 1962, compared to about 19 percent today.
And another difference between the Sputnik moment of 1957 and today: Federal debt amounted to 60 percent of gross domestic product in 1957; today it is nearly 90 percent of GDP.
The economic rules have changed
Focusing on the new hyper-competitive international economy, Obama said, “The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100.”
“Just recently, China became home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer. So yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn't discourage us. It should challenge us.”
Sounding a bit like a governor touting the virtues of his state as a place to invest, Obama said, “We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit, and reform our government. That's how our people will prosper. That's how we'll win the future.”
He turned to the lessons of 1957 with the shock of the Soviets launching the first manmade satellite.
A nod to the stimulus
Without mentioning the $800 billion Recovery Act, or the stimulus, by name, Obama alluded to it saying, “Over the last two years, we have begun rebuilding for the 21st century, a project that has meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry. Tonight, I'm proposing that we redouble these efforts.”
He called for building rail systems so that 80 percent of Americans have access to high-speed rail. “As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.” What he did not mention is that new Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, a Republican, was elected last November partly on the strength of his opposition to a high-speed rail project in his state.
Then Obama turned to the health care struggle that consumed much of 2009 and the beginning of 2010, joking that, “I've heard rumors that a few of you have some concerns about the new health care law.”
He said, “Let me be the first to say that anything can be improved. If you have ideas about how to improve this law by making care better or more affordable, I am eager to work with you.”
No repeal of health care law
But he once again made it clear he’d reject any effort to repeal the bill.
“What I'm not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a pre-existing condition. ... Instead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let's fix what needs fixing and move forward.”
Finally toward the end of the speech, the president turned to the issue that motivates many Republican voters and newly elected GOP members of Congress: the national debt.
America, he said, must take steps to ensure “we aren't buried under a mountain of debt.” He blamed “a legacy of deficit-spending that began almost a decade ago. And in the wake of the financial crisis, some of that was necessary to keep credit flowing, save jobs, and put money in people's pockets.”
He proposed a freeze on domestic non-entitlement spending for the next five years. But he acknowledged that only cutting domestic non-entitlement spending won’t suffice.
He did not endorse any specific proposals made by the bipartisan Fiscal Commission he created last year. “I don't agree with all their proposals, but they made important progress,” he said.
But he said that replacing the health care law would only add to future deficits.
Medicare and Medicaid “are the single biggest contributor to our long-term deficit. Health insurance reform will slow these rising costs...."
Arizona on their minds
The president began his speech by turning to the memory of the shootings in Tucson that killed six people and severely injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.
In the House visitors’ gallery were the parents of a 9-year-old girl killed in the attack and Giffords' surgeons.
“I want to begin by congratulating the men and women of the 112th Congress, as well as your new Speaker, John Boehner. And as we mark this occasion, we are also mindful of the empty chair in this Chamber, and pray for the health of our colleague — and our friend — Gabby Giffords,” Obama said.
He said that “a robust democracy" demands contentious debates, but “amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater — something more consequential than party or political preference.”
Bipartisan seating — and thinking
He began the speech with a reference to members sitting alongside fellow members of Congress from the opposing party, a break with recent practice. There were members of some state delegations such as Arizona and Texas sitting together, with Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, joshing with his Democratic colleague Rep. Al Green at one point in the speech.
“What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow,” Obama said. “That's what the people who sent us here expect of us."
“With their votes, they've determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties,” the president said, calling on members to try to forego partisan concerns.
“At stake right now is not who wins the next election; after all, we just had an election. At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It's whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded.”
An olive branch for John Boehner
In the homestretch of his speech, Obama circled back to the bipartisan theme.
Agreeing on policies that will move the nation ahead, he said, “will be harder because we will argue about everything. The cost, the details, the letter of every law.”
But, he said, that’s the nature of American democracy. “As contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth,” he said.
Americans “may have differences in policy,” but all believe “in the same dream that says this is a country where anything's possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.”
In another olive branch to Boehner, Obama said, “That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father's Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth.”
Judging by Republican reaction to Obama's proposal to increase investment, the president will need all the kind words he can find over the next year or two.