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Obama's State of the Union proposals will test whether parties can work together

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 7:11 AM

President Obama will face a major challenge after he details his agenda for the second stage of his presidency in Tuesday's State of the Union address: selling it to the two political parties.

Despite all the talk about civility and increased bipartisanship over the past two months, Democrats and Republicans have truly agreed on only one major legislative initiative since the November election: the relatively easy move to keep tax cuts in place for most Americans.

Now, the president is expected to offer a series of proposals that don't fall on sharp ideological lines as last year's health care bill did, but will still test the two parties' ability to work together. He is expected to tout deficit reduction, but the two sides don't agree on how to get there. Republicans largely favor spending cuts, Democrats a combination of cuts and tax increases.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is already saying any education reform bill, another issue the president will speak about, should include private school vouchers, anathema to many liberal Democrats.

Obama wants to increase spending on education and innovation, even as Republicans call for across-the-board cuts in government spending.

Polls show Obama's overall standing among Americans has improved since Election Day, but in Washington he faces two parties wary of him. Liberal Democrats in and out of Congress have already effectively vetoed Obama taking up the recommendations of the bipartisan deficit commission, which called for gradually raising the retirement age and reducing some Social Security benefits. They are worried about Obama focusing too much on deficit reduction and are ready to attack him if he does.

Republicans, meanwhile, are eager to flaunt their new-found power in Washington, already promising to turn a March vote on increasing the debt ceiling into a spending confrontation.

Tuesday's night's closely watched speech will be filled with the usual dramatic subplots --which honored guests will sit in the galleries and be singled out by the president? Which and how many of the Supreme Court justices will attend?

This year, in the wake of the tragic shooting rampage in Tucson earlier this month, there is the added wrinkle of which lawmakers will sit with whom. Many legislators are abandoning the tradition sitting according to party, on opposite sides of the center aisle, instead opting to find seats next to colleagues who may not share their political ideologies or positions.

But, as veteran State of the Union watchers know, where you sit is only part of the equation. The other, equally pressing, question is when do you applaud?

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