In State of the Union, Obama Charts a Path Forward

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For two years, Barack Obama has been talking about lifting the U.S. out of a financial hole. In his second State of the Union, buoyed by recent legislative successes, his successful speech in Tucson and a brightening economic forecast, he began charting a path forward.

That’s not to say the address harked back to the soaring oratory of his campaign speeches, or even the Tucson address. It was light on applause lines and suffused with a grim subtext: our competitors are gaining on us. Obama’s task was to acknowledge the status anxiety sweeping across the U.S., identify the problems causing it, and map out a plan to solidify America’s place in the world.

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” Obama said. Instead of a space race, he envisioned a contest fought in research labs and classrooms, high-tech startups and small businesses. To compete with a nascent China and other competitors, Obama proposed ramping up investment in education, clean energy, research and development. He vowed to ratchet up R&D investments, boost clean energy production while cutting subsidies to fossil fuels, and prioritize infrastructure projects, high-speed and broadband access. “We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world,” he said. “We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit, and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future.”

If Obama’s insistence on new spending programs will rile Republicans, the GOP may be cheered — to a point — by the president’s focus on the federal deficit. Obama proposed tacking a five-year freeze on non-security, non-entitlement discretionary spending, which would slash spending by some $400 billion over the next decade, taking it to its lowest percentage of GDP since the Eisenhower Administration.  He also unveiled several proposals with a good chance of winning bipartisan support, including a deficit-neutral outline to reform the corporate tax code by closing loopholes, overhauling government agencies to eliminate overlap and redundancies, and bipartisan medical malpractice reform.

Despite his entreaties, Republicans expressed skepticism at Obama’s push for austerity. “Suddenly claiming a renewed fidelity to fiscal responsibility will not excuse this administration’s long and apparently continuing effort to pursue a failed agenda,” said House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Tom Price of Georgia. At an afternoon briefing, Obama’s advisers also sought to highlight differences between the parties, including on spending. “Cutting spending with a meat axe across the board is not, in itself, an economic strategy,” said Gene Sperling, a top economic adviser.

In the wake of the Tucson massacre, the political imperative to put aside partisan bickering manifested in small moments on the House floor. Much was made of the specific cross-aisle “prom” pairings, and with parties no longer seater en masse, lawmakers struggled with cues – when to clap, when to rise, when to glower.  The mixed seating also revealed some stark contrasts. When Obama promised to veto any bill larded with earmarks, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill shot to her feet in applause; a row in front of her, Mitch McConnell grudgingly followed suit after several long moments. When Obama said U.S. Muslims were part of the American family, New York Democrat Charlie Rangel surreptitiously tugged Republican Peter King – who has pledged to hold hearings on their radicalization — to his feet to applaud.

The theme of the address was the way to “win the future,” a slogan that sounds cooked up in a corporate boardroom. It may have been a nod to our hunger for digestible sound-bites or a recognition that plenty of Obama’s opponents remain unconvinced that he believes in American exceptionalism. But it was also a clear message that “the rules have changed,” as Obama said. To the president, American exceptionalism is no longer a matter of Manifest Destiny, but a status secured with hard work, smart choices and grit.

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