WASHINGTON - President Barack 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.”
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.”
Coming less than three months after his party’s defeat in the midterm elections, Obama struck notes of optimism and conciliation. He spoke to a House chamber where traditionally segregated Republicans and Democrats mingled, and 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.”
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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 even as the country fights two wars. Those and other budgetary proposals, outlined previously by Obama and his advisers, were designed 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 blend a number of policy proposals into a blueprint for how he intends to confront 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 stubbornly stuck above 9 percent.
He sought to sway his audience with rhetoric rather than voluminous 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 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 there yet. NASA didn’t even 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 State of the Union address – ranged from increasing math and science teacher training to 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 massacre, 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.”
He touched glancingly on immigration, saying it is time to allow students who are 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 defended his health-care overhaul, inviting detractors to help him move forward with essential fixes to the law. While he said he would accept minor corrections to “flaws” in the law, he drew a bright line against broader 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 pre-existing condition.”
And, referring to the passage of the repeal for “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. It is time to move forward as one nation,” Obama said.
Addressing a Republican-controlled 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 a plan to “win 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.
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 five-year spending freeze proposal 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. When Obama raised a proposal to save $78 billion in defense spending, it was one with a familiar ring: It had already been given a full public airing by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
And Obama talked about the pressing need to create jobs – just as he did the year before, when he declared that “jobs must be our number one focus in 2010.”
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.
In calling on Congress to work with him to rein in the budget deficit, Obama acknowledged the deep spending cuts Republicans have already proposed, although many of them remain unspecified. He said he was “willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without.”
“But let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens,” Obama said.
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 also pledged to meet the end-of-the-year deadline to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq more than eights years after the invasion.