WASHINGTON -- Looking to boost the country’s slow economic recovery -- and his own political rebound -- President Barack Obama used his State of the Union Address Tuesday night to pitch an agenda that he said will create jobs and to portray himself as a leader above partisanship eager to work with the Republicans who share power.
“The future is ours to win,” he said, sounding his theme. “But to get there, we can’t just stand still.”
It was Obama’s first chance to speak directly to the Republicans who seized control of the House of Representatives and increased their strength in the Senate with a landslide election in November, and he used it to try to frame the coming epic debate over the federal budget, national debt and the economy on his terms.
With a Republican Speaker of the House over his shoulder for the first time, Obama paid heed to the 2010 elections. He insisted, though, that the country didn’t repudiate his Democrats so much as divide power.
“With their votes, the American people determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties,” he said. “New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all -- for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.”
“At stake right now is not who wins the next election -- after all, we just had an election,” Obama said. “At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It’s whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. . . . We are poised for progress.”
While Republicans say that they won a mandate to roll back much of his agenda, Obama insisted anew that the verdict from voters was against Washington gridlock and that their marching order was to get things done to help Americans get jobs, keep them and earn more. And he pointed to success for the country during his two years at the helm.
“Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again,” he said.
“But we have never measured progress by these yardsticks alone. We measure progress by the success of our people. By the jobs they can find and the quality of life those jobs offer. ... That’s the project the American people want us to work on. Together.”
Speaking for the Republicans, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was pointed in his criticism of Obama, saying that his agenda had made things worse, not better. Ryan said his party shared blame for rising deficits and debt, but vowed that would change in the new Congress.
“Americans are skeptical of both political parties, and that skepticism is justified -- especially when it comes to spending,” said Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman.
“So hold all of us accountable. In this very room, the House will produce, debate, and advance a budget. Last year, in an unprecedented failure, Congress chose not to pass, or even propose a budget. The spending spree continued unchecked.
“We owe you a better choice and a different vision. Our forthcoming budget is our obligation to you -- to show you how we intend to do things differently, how we will cut spending to get the debt down, help create jobs and prosperity, and reform government programs.”
The mood in the room was more sober than the year before, after the Jan. 8 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and 18 others prompted calls for more civil political discourse.
Among the guests looking on from the gallery with first lady Michelle Obama were the intern who rushed to Giffords’ aid, the family of a 9-year-old girl killed in the attack, and doctors from the hospital where Giffords and others were treated.
Members took the unusual step of sitting beside colleagues from the other party. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who in September 2009 stunned the chamber by yelling “You Lie!” at Obama, sat Tuesday with Democratic Reps. Susan Davis of California and Madeleine Bordallo of Guam.
“What comes of this moment is up to us,” 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.”
Such efforts of public shows of bonhomie weren’t universal.
Three members of the Supreme Court didn’t attend. Justice Samuel Alito, who mouthed “not true” when Obama used the speech last year to criticize a court ruling on campaign finance, was in Hawaii on Tuesday. Fellow conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas also chose not to attend.
Obama emphasized increased spending, or “investment,” on several of his top priorities, and challenged the nation to see this as a historic turning point comparable to the U.S. space race with the Soviet Union of the late 1950s and 1960s.
“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 would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist,” Obama 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. This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”
Obama proposed greater spending on education to provide better-trained workers, road building to speed commerce, and wireless Internet to reach 98 percent of the country to ease communication. He also proposed to overhaul corporate taxes by closing loopholes and cutting corporate tax rates.
Brushing off his spending-freeze proposal from last year, he proposed to freeze spending on a small portion of the federal budget for five years -- the roughly 12 percent left after spending on defense, homeland security, interest on the debt and entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security.
Aides said his proposed freeze would pare $400 billion off the projected federal deficit over 10 years.
Republicans were cool to the spending-freeze proposal, noting that it wouldn’t just lock out increases but cuts as well.
“At a time when the Treasury secretary is begging Congress to raise the debt limit, a ‘freeze’ is simply inadequate,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
“The problem,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., his party’s leader in the Senate, “is it freezes in place an extraordinary increase in spending that’s occurred over the last two years.”
Instead, Republicans want to cut non-security spending to 2008 levels -- before a deep recession sent federal spending soaring with bailouts and stimulus spending. In a strong message to Obama even before his limo pulled up the Capitol, the House voted earlier in the day to cut back spending to those 2008 levels.
Obama also threatened to veto spending bills that include pork-barrel spending known as “earmarks.”
With Republicans who run the House already vowing to ban earmarks, Obama’s threat was apparently aimed at the Democrats who control the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., insists it’s the Senate’s right to put anything it wants in spending bills.
“I don’t think it’s helpful,” Reid said. “It’s all a lot of pretty talk, but it’s only giving the president more power. He’s got enough power already.”
In a brief turn to foreign affairs at the end of his speech, Obama also announced he’ll visit Brazil, Chile and El Salvador in March.
David Lightman contributed to this article.