WASHINGTON — Trying to lift the nation and his own political fortunes, President Barack Obama on Tuesday sought to promote a jobs agenda blending concentrated spending and a fresh bid to control the country’s staggering debt. He faced a more skeptical and divided Congress and an electorate demanding results in an economy-heavy State of the Union address.
Details of the speech began leaking in advance. Obama was to 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 to the nation last year at this time, and 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 GOP lawmakers on record in favor of cutting $100 billion from Obama’s budget for the current year.
Halfway through his term, Obama stepped into this moment on the upswing, with a series of recent legislative wins in his pocket and praise from all corners for the way he responded to the shooting rampage in Arizona that targeted a member of Congress.
But the political reality is that he must now find a way to lead a divided government for the first time, with more than half of all Americans disapproving of the way he is handling the economy – the topic dominating both his speech and a 2012 re-election campaign that has already begun.
Obama was to address a television audience of tens of millions with his prime-time speech, an annual rite in which the president tries to set a tone and agenda for the year ahead. Over his shoulder a reminder of the shift in power on Capitol Hill: new Republican House Speaker John Boehner.
This year’s speech featured a more sober, civil and emotional setting. One seat was to remain empty in honor of Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who is recovering from a bullet wound from the Jan. 8 assassination attempt against her that left six people dead. Many in both parties were to wear black-and-white lapel pins, signifying the deaths in Tucson and the hopes of the survivors. Family members of some victims were to sit with first lady Michelle Obama.
In an attempt at unity following the attack, some Democratic and Republican lawmakers planned to sit together. The focus on a new tone comes a year after Obama’s rebuke of a Supreme Court decision in his State of the Union speech led Justice Samuel Alito to mouth back from the audience, “Not true.”
Six justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, were to attend Tuesday night. Alito was in Hawaii this week, and Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia were not attending.
The president’s speech focuses on federal spending for education, innovation and infrastructure as ways the government can support the country’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.
Republicans chose Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to deliver the televised response to Obama’s address. He was planning to promote budget cuts as essential to responsible governing, speaking from the hearing room of the House Budget Committee, which he now chairs.
Public concern over government spending was a defining force in the 2010 midterm elections, and it is expected to remain so as Obama’s re-election drive begins. Yet Obama was unlikely to sign onto any specific ideas for addressing the country’s long-term debt.
The president was to give nods to American interests around the globe, with a traditional foreign policy section covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorism threats and diplomacy. But his primary goal was for those watching to emerge with more confidence about the economy of the country and more clarity about his vision for it.
White House domestic policy director Melody Barnes said the president would strike an optimistic tone about the economy and American competitiveness, wrapping it all under a “win the future” rallying cry that he hopes will resonate with both workers and business executives and bind the political parties.
Obama’s budget freeze would not touch money related to national security or the politically popular but costly entitlement programs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. He was also putting his weight behind a five-year plan developed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to limit planned Pentagon budget increases by $78 billion over five years.
It all must be viewed in the context of his new political reality.
The midterm elections gave Republicans control of the House and a stronger minority vote in the Senate, meaning he hasn’t the option of pushing through changes over GOP objections. The contrast between the two parties’ visions remains stark, and questions about where to cut spending, and by how much, will drive much of the debate for the rest of 2011.
Obama is trying to emphasize economic priorities that can draw both public appeal and enough Republican consideration for at least serious debate. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested Tuesday that Obama has a long road ahead as he tries to court GOP support.
“Voters sent a clear message in November. When it comes to jobs and the economy, the administration’s policies have done far more damage than good,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.