President Obama enters his State of the Union Address. (photo: Andrew P. Scott, USA TODAY)
by Susan Page, USA Today
- In fifth State of the Union speech, tone was more combative
- Agenda had more of the sweep of first-term ambitions
- Advisers say he feels empowered by his re-election
WASHINGTON - In the State of the Union speech launching his second term, it was Barack Obama 2.0.
President Obama's hair was visibly grayer than at his first speech in the House chamber four years ago. His tone was more combative. His rhetoric drew sharper lines.
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He has the scars of four tumultuous years in office and the credential of having won re-election. During last year's election and especially since November's victory, Obama has been emboldened on both the battles he chooses and the tactics he uses. Voters had a stark choice on the 2012 ballot, he's noted; they chose him.
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"The American people don't expect government to solve every problem," he said near the start of his speech. "They don't expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the nation's interests before party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can."
The agenda Obama outlined had more of the sweep of first-term ambitions than the limits of a second-term cleanup operation. He said it was critical to address climate change, an issue he sidelined after his cap-and-trade proposal went nowhere in his first year in office. (If Congress won't act, he said, he'd look for executive actions.) In an emotional closing section to the long address, he added gun control to his priorities in the wake of the December shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn.
He urged action to overhaul immigration, expand preschool education programs, encourage manufacturing and invest in clean energy. He endorsed an increase in the minimum wage, unveiled an initiative to bolster protections for the nation's cybersystems, and created a commission to study voting problems.
And as he had in each State of the Union speech since taking office during a financial freefall, he called for government action to help create jobs and rebuild the middle class.
"We have cleared away the rubble of crisis," he said. But he added, "It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country, the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead."
The State of the Union Address demonstrated that Obama's muscular inaugural address signaled a change in his administration. In both speeches, he embraced a more liberal agenda and more confrontational style. He feels empowered by his re-election, advisers say, and liberated from ever running for office again. He's also applying lessons from the past few frustrating years.
The question ahead is whether Obama's new strategy, which relies less on persuading members of Congress than pressuring them with the force of public opinion, will succeed in passing major legislation or simply create a new recipe for gridlock.
That could be tested almost immediately, on the looming battle over automatic spending cuts scheduled to go into effect on March 1. Obama said the "sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts" would jeopardize military readiness and slow the economic recovery. He said he would support "modest" steps to save money in Medicare but also called for changes in the tax code that would hit "the well-off and well-connected."
Republican leaders have flatly ruled out more revenue, however, noting that tax hikes on top earners were part of a deal struck to avert the so-called fiscal cliff at the beginning of the year. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, in the formal Republican response, accused Obama of having an "obsession" about raising taxes.
Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee, mocked Obama's speech on Twitter. "'Balanced approach' means 'I'm going to increase your taxes to pay for my crony capitalism,'" she wrote, adding a sarcastic hashtag: "#NoOneIsBuyingThis."
There were emotional moments during the address, especially when Obama cited the stories of those in the visitors' gallery touched by gun violence. A teacher from Sandy Hook Elementary School was seated with first lady Michelle Obama. So were the parents of a 15-year-old girl who had been shot and killed in Chicago a week after performing in events here for Obama's inauguration.
He embraced background checks for gun buyers as a "common sense reform" and mentioned other ideas. "Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress," he said. To rising applause from some in the hall, he repeated the names of people and places associated with iconic shooting rampages.
"Gabby Giffords deserves a vote," he said of the former Arizona congresswoman, seated in the chamber's gallery. "The families of Newtown deserve a vote."
The president also called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration bill that, among other things, would provide a path for "earned citizenship" for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. "Let's get this done," he said. Members of both parties rose to applaud that. On that issue, there may be common ground with Republicans eager to repair frayed ties with Hispanic voters.
On most fronts, though, Obama's relationship with GOP leaders has soured enough that compromise seems distant. House Speaker John Boehner
and Republicans in the hall mostly sat on their hands as Obama ran through proposals on addressing climate change, on raising the minimum wage, on creating joint government-business manufacturing hubs.
Still, the president's prospects have been boosted by the divisions within his opposition.
Also fueling the president's sense of urgency is the certainty that political attention at some point will shift to the 2016 campaign and the battle to succeed him. "Generally speaking," said Neera Tanden, a former Obama adviser who now heads the Center for American Progress, "we have a good year to get things done."