WASHINGTON-President Obama delivered his State of the Union address to Congress under a cloud of new political realities: Republicans made massive election gains in November, taking the U.S. House and gaining ground in the Senate.
The president pointed out the obvious truth that no legislation would move forward without Republican and Democratic support. So he offered a conciliatory tone, which also left his speech without many rousing moments.
Economic recovery was the centerpiece of the speech, and the president's philosophy on how to spur growth remained unchanged. He proposed government "investment" in education, research, and development that would spur the economy and create jobs, which he called "the first step in winning the future."
"I don't know if you can declare victory when we're just borrowing," Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., a freshman, told me afterwards.
The president listed off his accomplishments like the tax rate deal and healthcare reform. "I've heard rumors that a few of you have some concerns about the new healthcare law," Obama said as laughter filled the room. "So let me be the first to say that anything can be improved." For example, he called the tax-filing requirement for small businesses in the bill a "flaw" that should be changed.
In an effort to move to the center, Obama called for a ban on earmarks, which make up less than 1 percent of the federal budget but is a priority of Tea Party groups. Earlier in the day Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid dismissed the president's idea, calling it "a lot of pretty talk." Obama also called for a freeze in federal spending for the next five years, which will save around $400 billion over the next decade. The president also reached out to Republicans by saying he would support tort reform, a measure they had pushed to reduce medical lawsuits.
The policy differences of the two parties will come into focus quickly: The president is expected to deliver his budget to Congress in the coming weeks.
The new chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., delivered the GOP response to the president, clarifying their differences. "Depending on bureaucracy to foster innovation, competitiveness, and wise consumer choices has never worked-and it won't work now," he said. "We hold to a couple of simple convictions: Endless borrowing is not a strategy; spending cuts have to come first." Ryan is the author of "Roadmap for America," one of the most specific (and controversial) proposals to address the budget and entitlement crisis.
Ryan was the official Republican response, but not the only one. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., also delivered her own response, in some sense representing the Tea Party perspective. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia pointed out that Bachmann's message was one among 535 responses from members of Congress.
The plan for Democrats and Republicans to sit together for the address instead of on opposite sides, as has been the tradition, was initially deemed a gimmick, but the atmosphere in the chamber was certainly more subdued.
"I think it had a soothing tone," Rep. Pete Welch, D-Vt., told me. "I think members were listening more carefully than in the past."
Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., added, "I think it was less like a pep rally."
Speaking of pep rallies, Chief Justice John Roberts attended the address, even though he had earlier indicated he might abstain because the State of the Union had "degenerated to a political pep rally." Five of the other justices joined him, but not the more conservative members of the court: Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas.
Looking internationally, the president hailed the elections in South Sudan, which will likely result in the country's independence. Ezekiel Gatkuoth, southern Sudan's envoy to the United States, sat in the chamber with the members of Congress and broke into applause before anyone else when the president mentioned his country. The president also voiced the United States' support for the "people of Tunisia," and "the democratic aspirations of all people."
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