washingtonpost.com
Obama challenges the nation - and Republicans

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 11:58 PM

President Obama and his party may have suffered a historic defeat in November's midterm elections, but in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, he was anything but on the defensive.

His speech was most notable not for the nods he made to the changed political balance or the issues that cost the Democrats control of the House and that shaved their majority in the Senate - although he did do that.

More striking was his effort to frame the coming debates over spending and the role of government in ways that are designed to put Republicans on the defense as the fights begin. It was his latest effort to appeal to the center of the electorate.

The speech was a defense of the active use of government to prepare the country for the long-term challenge of global competitiveness, through spending on education, infrastructure, alternative energy and other projects.

Obama agreed that dealing with the deficit is crucial to ensuring the country's competitive might. But he warned, in essence, that the goal of cutting spending alone should not eclipse the assurance that the U.S. economy remains the strongest in the world.

Although this was a speech long on policy and broad ideas, it was also a calculated political argument, an effort to move the debates that framed the election to a different place.

Obama tried to project a new spirit of bipartisanship. He salted the speech with ideas that Republicans could easily agree with, such as lowering the corporate tax rate, ending earmarks and taking on medical malpractice reform. But there were also many things with which Republicans will take issue.

There was much Obama did not say, or at least said in only the most general terms. His goals sounded concrete; the steps to get there far less so. That leaves open whether his new strategy will produce real cooperation with Republicans, convince voters and others that he really has gotten the message from the midterms or, most crucially, show progress in lowering the unemployment rate.

The speech drew generally polite applause but there appeared to be little energy in the chamber. Perhaps that was because everyone was on good behavior, many seated with someone from the other party or because some of what the president said was non-controversial.

Much has changed since the November elections, and the president took advantage of those changes. His success in the lame-duck session of Congress helped restore some of his political balance and boost his standing. His well-received speech at a memorial service in Tucson after the shootings there put him in an even stronger position. But Obama has yet to consolidate those gains, especially with independent voters.

The shootings that left six dead and 13 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), also changed the overheated partisan environment. On Tuesday night, Obama sought to capitalize on an atmosphere of lowered voices and greater political civility to again reprise the themes of unity and common purpose that helped him win the White House in 2008.

After two years of hard partisan debate, Obama argued that the voters' decision to produce divided government means there can be progress only through cooperation and compromise between the parties.

"We will move forward together, or not at all," he said.

The president's words will not head off difficult discussions, particularly about government spending and health care. Republicans are not buying his calls for new investment, which they consider government spending by another name. But it was clearly his goal Tuesday to try to put the onus on Republicans to defend the spending cuts they are pledging to pursue, rather than allowing them to seize the initiative first.

On health care, the most contentious issue of the past two years, Obama devoted only two paragraphs. He said he is open to improvements but vowed to resist any GOP efforts to undo the benefits included in the new law. In another challenge for the parties to work together, he said, "So instead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let's fix what needs fixing and move forward."

Although the nation's unemployment rate still stands at 9.4 percent, the president hardly dealt with short-term efforts to produce jobs - even though that may be the most important factor in determining whether he is reelected.

Instead, he praised the work done in the lame-duck session to inject more money into the economy and sounded a cheerleader's tone to say that the worst is over. Whether the public agrees is another question. There are some signs of optimism, but there is much room for improvement.

On spending, which Republicans consider the main reason for their midterm success, Obama acknowledged the problem. But his call for a five-year freeze in discretionary domestic spending was a longer version of his three-year freeze announced a year ago and left open the question of just where he plans to cut to offset the new spending he seemed to be calling for.

On that front, however, Republicans are not doing much better. They passed a resolution Tuesday pledging to return to 2008 levels of spending, but have not put specifics behind the goal. And they clearly disagree on how much is enough.

The president did not tackle the biggest causes of the country's long-term fiscal imbalance. Although he created a deficit commission, the best he could do was to say it has done a credible job and that the conversation it started should continue.

Obama said that further reductions in Medicare and Medicaid are needed and that he is open to ideas. He called for a bipartisan effort to strengthen Social Security. He then put down markers on the things he would not accept. He only mentioned comprehensive tax reform. He was, in essence, asking Republicans to walk out on the ledge with him before he is prepared to embrace specifics of what arguably is the most difficult of the fiscal debates.

The president used the speech again to attack one key element of the compromise he struck with Republicans in the lame-duck session, saying the country cannot afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. When he signaled his unhappiness with that part of the deal days after the compromise, Republicans took it as a sign of bad will on his part.

They may still be skeptical about his real willingness to cooperate and compromise, although there are reasons to think the two sides can find more common ground now than they have in the past.

Obama entered the Capitol on Tuesday night stronger politically than either he or the Republicans might have anticipated in the days after the fall elections. That put him ahead of the schedule of other presidents whose parties took a beating in midterm contests, most obviously Bill Clinton after Republicans won back Congress in 1994.

But Obama's political standing, while improved, is by no means solid. While a majority of Americans approve of his overall performance, they are generally negative in their assessment of how he is handling key issues, starting with the economy.

And although he has gained ground among independent voters, who remain the key to the outcome of the 2012 elections, they are still a group up for grabs depending on whether the economy recovers and who wins the coming debate about spending cuts and restraining government growth.

Republicans said Tuesday that they expected the president to deliver an impressive speech, but doubted whether he could match his words with actions in the coming months. That will be his test, and theirs, once they move from generalities to specifics.

balzd@washpost.com

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