By Anne E. Kornblut and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 26, 2011;
President Obama sought to rouse the nation from complacency in his State of the Union address Tuesday, urging innovation and budget reforms that he said are vital to keep the United States a leader in an increasingly competitive world.
"Sustaining the American dream has never been about standing pat," Obama said. "It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age. Now it's our turn."
Obama repeatedly declared the imperative to "win the future," comparing the current need for innovation to the space race against the Soviet Union in the 1950s and '60s. Calling for more dedication to research and technology as he raised the specter of a rapidly growing China and India, Obama declared: "This is our generation's Sputnik moment."
Speaking less than three months after his party's defeat in the midterm elections, Obama struck notes of optimism and conciliation in an address that spanned 62 minutes and was interrupted at least 75 times for applause. The president spoke to a House chamber in which traditionally segregated Republicans and Democrats mingled, and he acknowledged the unusual seating arrangement at the outset of his speech. But Obama said: "What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow."
Facing steep budget deficits, Obama did not call for massive new programs, instead proposing a five-year freeze in most discretionary spending and tens of billions of dollars in defense cuts. Those and other budgetary proposals, outlined previously by Obama and his advisers, were intended to give the president the upper hand in a debate over spending and the broader role of government that is likely to define the legislative year ahead and the presidential election to come.
But Obama also used the prime-time stage to combine a number of policy proposals into a blueprint for confronting growing threats to U.S. economic dominance. While he has emphasized innovation in his travels to battery factories and solar-panel plants over the past year, he has never done so as explicitly as he did Tuesday before a national audience and after a year when the unemployment rate remained stuck above 9 percent.
He sought to sway his audience with rhetoric rather than specifics. He declared the country "poised for progress" with the stock markets and corporate profits on the rebound. Acknowledging the agony of workers who have seen jobs sent overseas, he admitted that the "rules have changed" - and must be reckoned with through innovation and education.
"Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist," he said. "But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs."
Obama's proposals - some of them left over from last year's address - included increasing math and science teacher training and investing more in developing clean-energy technology. Behind his words loomed the rising economies of Asia that present both promising new markets for American exports and sharper competition to U.S. industry in areas where the economy is likely to grow most in the coming decades.
Obama did not call for new gun legislation, as some expected he might in the wake of deadly shootings in Tucson less than three weeks earlier. Instead he referred to the rampage, which left six dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) severely wounded, as an incident that gave the nation pause because it "reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater - something more consequential than party or political preference." As Obama mentioned Giffords, cameras panned to an empty chair where Giffords would have sat, while her colleagues, wearing lapel ribbons in her honor, solemnly clapped.
Obama touched glancingly on immigration, saying it is time to allow students in the country illegally to remain. "Let's stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can be staffing our research labs, starting new businesses, who could be further enriching this nation," he said.
He vigorously defended his health-care overhaul. While he said he would accept minor corrections to "flaws" in the law, he drew a bright line against big changes favored by Republicans, saying "what I'm not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a preexisting condition."
He proposed merging government agencies to eliminate redundancies, saying he would release a government restructuring plan and submit it to Congress for a vote.
And, referring to the passage of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" - the military's ban on openly gay service members - Obama called on universities to allow military recruiters on college campuses. "It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past," Obama said.
Addressing a Republican-led House for the first time, Obama touched on ideas with bipartisan appeal, from medical malpractice reform to deficit reduction. He promised to veto any bill that arrives on his desk with pet projects destined for lawmakers' districts, known as earmarks. His overarching theme - of "winning the future," a phrase he used nearly a dozen times - had patriotic underpinnings, part of his effort to reach a broad swath of the electorate and strike a balance between sounding too rosy and too alarmed about America's standing in the world.
Republicans received his speech well. The jeers and sarcastic cheering of years past were in little evidence - in part because, with Democrats and Republicans seated together, their applause at different moments was harder to discern. When Obama mentioned his earmark ban, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his opponent in the 2008 presidential race, leapt to his feet and clapped with a huge grin.
Still, Republicans questioned whether the president will live up to his own standards. In the official Republican response, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) criticized the president's health-care overhaul and challenged him on the deficit. "Americans are skeptical of both political parties, and that skepticism is justified - especially when it comes to spending," Ryan said. "So hold all of us accountable."
In delivering a State of the Union focused largely on the economy, Obama found himself in familiar territory, recycling themes that have cropped up repeatedly during his time in office.
His plan for a five-year spending freeze marked a modest extension of his earlier proposal to halt spending for three years. He addressed investments in education, infrastructure and energy innovation - concepts he discussed as far back as his first address to Congress in 2009. He urged a revamping of the No Child Left Behind act, a familiar call that is also popular across party lines.
And Obama talked about the pressing need to create jobs - just as he did the year before. Yet the demands were presented against a dramatically different political backdrop, after a succession of major accomplishments during his last year, as well as defeats.
Briefly looking abroad, Obama reiterated his plan to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July, saying the strategy of escalation he adopted at the end of 2009 has shown some success. He pledged to meet the end-of-the-year deadline to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq more than eight years after the invasion.
He also announced plans to make his first-ever trip to South America, traveling to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador in March.
And after weeks of unrest in Tunisia, Obama said "the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator" in the North African nation, where recent demonstrations against economic inequality, official corruption and political oppression drove the autocratic President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into exile after 23 years in power.
"The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia and supports the democratic aspirations of all people," Obama said.
He contrasted the simplicity of dictatorships with the messiness of U.S. democracy, saying Americans should have "no illusions about the work ahead."
"Reforming our schools, changing the way we use energy, reducing our deficit - none of this is easy," he said. "And it will be harder because we will argue about everything. The cost. The details. The letter of every law."
And yet, Obama concluded: "As contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth."
Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr., Shailagh Murray, Nick Anderson, Steven Mufson and Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.