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Chastened but not beaten

Midway through his term, Obama blends old and new realities

Issue: "Between Hell and Hope," Feb. 12, 2011

President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address on Jan. 25 as a leader chastened by recent electoral losses, and focused on the main issues that drove voters to the polls: the economy and the federal deficit. In his address, he even embraced a few Republican ideas: He hailed the tax cuts passed in December, called for a cut in corporate tax rates, and said Congress should do away with the provision in healthcare reform that requires small businesses to file tax forms for any expenses over $600. He proposed that Congress freeze discretionary federal spending for the next five years.

But he clung to liberal proposals, too, proposing billions in government "investment" in sectors like clean energy technology. Cutting those, he said, would be like removing the engine from an airplane. "The term 'invest' in this town, in the prism of federal government, means more spending to me," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor the morning after the address.

Typically the president offers few specifics in his State of the Union, but for the last 12 years the nonpartisan National Taxpayers Union (NTU) has analyzed the cost of the president's proposals named in the address. This year the NTU calculated that Obama's ideas added up to a net cost of $20 billion. That's lower than his proposals last year, which added up to a net cost of $70 billion. Still, the NTU points out that "the large number of items whose impact is unclear could dramatically affect this total."

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The lowest price tag the NTU documented was President George W. Bush's 2006 address, which clocked in at under $1 billion in proposals. The highest: President Bill Clinton's 1999 address, with a price tag of $305 billion.

Obama's spending will get more specific soon: He is supposed to deliver a budget to Congress on Valentine's Day. House Republicans themselves have the hard work of finding deep cuts, too, since all spending bills originate in the House. They have pledged to find $100 billion in cuts for the next fiscal year as a start-but a conservative leader within the party, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, has offered an amendment to cut $100 billion now-before the end of this current fiscal year.

Get serious

The post of ambassador for international religious freedom remains vacant two years into President Obama's term after his previous nominee, Suzan Johnson Cook, failed to make it out of committee at the end of the last Congress. Cook's nomination gained little attention, but religious freedom advocates were critical of her lack of experience (she has served as a pastor in New York City and chaplain to the police department) after a botched confirmation hearing where she could not answer a question on foreign policy. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., reportedly put a hold on her confirmation, citing lack of experience, which meant her nomination expired. Tom Farr, the director of the State Department's International Religious Freedom office under President Bush, condemned the Obama administration's "utter indifference" to the post. "Bottom line: there is virtually no pressure-public or private-for the White House, the State Department, or the Democrat-controlled Senate to treat U.S. religious freedom policy with any seriousness," he wrote in an email.

Big, big things

With House Republican gains, 73 of the GOP's 87 freshman members have joined the Republican Study Committee. Already it's proposing a return to 2006 budget levels for non-defense agencies, slashing the federal workforce by 15 percent, and eliminating programs like public broadcasting and Amtrak. "Most freshmen feel like I do," said Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., "that we've got to do some big, big things." The Study Committee includes more than two-thirds of House Republicans and will demand not only the $100 billion cut in federal programs put out by chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, but also a total of $2.5 trillion over the next decade.Said Jordan: "When you look at it in the context that there's a $14 trillion debt, it seems to me we should be able to find $100 billion."

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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