Obama Combative, But in Mellow Tone

Mark Laluan

President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address to Congress on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 25 in Washington, D.C.

President Barack Obama’s used Tuesday’s State of the Union address to polish old points and grind new axes, albeit in a muted fashion.

Last November’s mid-term elections saw large Republican majorities return to the House, a weakened Democratic presence in the Senate and Republican gains in statewide offices throughout the nation. However, Obama showed no signs that he would accept Republican attempts to rein in his government spending priorities.

Bipartisanship and other conciliatory language was out in full force as Obama began his narrative by reminding the audience of the Arizona shooting. The attack inflicted upon Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and other victims has been used to support the notion that political rhetoric in America has become too heated.

In a show of solidarity in the wake of this act of political violence, Democratic and Republican leaders agreed that members of both parties would be sitting side by side instead. Obama would go on to reference this seating arrangement in his speech.

“Now, by itself, this simple recognition won’t usher in a new era of cooperation,” said Obama.

“What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.”

Following this point the president launched into a sweeping rehash of domestic issues, taking talking points from both Republicans and Democrats. According to CSU East Bay Masters of History student Adam Zentner, Obama managed to take a page out of the late President Ronald Reagan’s playbook.

Zentner, who finished his undergraduate senior thesis on Reagan’s working relationship with the then-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev at CSUEB, says that, in many respects, Obama’s emphasis on America’s need to close a preserved technology and “brain trust” gap with international rivals mirrors Reagan’s thinking.

“Reagan was pushing for families to encourage their children to achieve and succeed in school in order to build a base on which America could sustain the world’s finest military, most advanced space program and most robust economy,” said Zentner. “He did this to convince the Soviets that competition was impossible with the United States and that cooperation with America was the only way forward.”

“Reagan was faced with closing the economic downturn of the 1970s, violent turmoil in Latin America and the possibility of a revived Cold War challenge by the Soviets. Obama is currently faced with reviving an economy still limp from the dotcom bust of the early part of last decade, the instability caused by terrorism, piracy and conventional military challenges from Russia, China, and, potentially, India. The parallels are quite striking.”

Obama went on to caution his listeners that while he was open to compromises on immigration, tort reform and taxation, he would fight vigorously attempts by his opponents to cut spending he deemed vital.

The president especially went out of his way to castigate Republicans for their fight to repeal what they view as a costly health care reform law.

“I recognize that some in this chamber have already proposed deeper cuts, and I’m willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without,” said Obama. “But let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.”

“Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you’ll feel the impact.”

The very areas Obama wants to spend more money on, such as subsidies for alternative fuels, socialized health care, high speed rail and education, are the very areas that Republicans have been hinting at cutting in recent weeks.

His remarks that green energy companies should have preference for subsidies over the petroleum industry show that the president’s core preferences have not changed. Obama seems to have taken the occasion to rally his base rather than move to the center, as President Bill Clinton did in the latter part of his first term in office.

A key part of that base that swept him to office in 2008 is university age students. CSUEB Associated Students Vice President of External Affairs Joe Tafoya echoed the notion that the speech had much merit in terms of student priorities.

“The event was a welcome relief,” said Tafoya. “I expected downright disapproval and perhaps jeering of the President’s speech by the newly elected Republican House majority. His positive tone regarding the promise of economic growth, the potential for innovation, with examples such as small business drilling technology aiding in the Chilean miner rescue, and even his willingness to tackle immigration reform despite the Tucson tragedy are truly inspired.”

“The speech was a much needed step away from partisan politics overly played in consumer media and taken to levels of excess in the blogosphere. The president made us feel as if we were all on the same boat together, and this outlook was a refreshing change of pace.”

Immediately after the president’s speech came the official Republican response. The Republican response was followed by a corollary released by the Tea Party Express, one of more successful groups among the mostly decentralized Tea Party Movement.

Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), the new Chair of the House Budget Committee, was tasked with giving the Republican rebuttal. Ryan focused on the President’s economic policies and the rationale behind Republican resistance.

“Tonight, the president focused a lot of attention on our economy in general—and on our deficit and debt in particular,” said Ryan. “As chairman of the House Budget Committee, I assure you that we want to work with the president to restrain federal spending.”

“A few years ago, reducing spending was important. Today, it’s imperative. Here’s why: we face a crushing burden of debt. The debt will soon eclipse our entire economy and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead.”

Ryan proceeded to argue Obama’s policies would lead to cripple effects for future generations of Americans, “On this current path, when my three children—who are now 6, 7, and 8 years old—are raising their own children, the federal government will double in size and so will the taxes they pay.”

Ryan then provided a rationale behind Republican opposition to the Democratic position on health care and social spending by linking back to his arguments regarding how such spending was unfeasible.

The Tea Party Express rebuttal echoed Republican points and was given by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), the de facto leader of the House Tea Party Caucus.

Apart from repeated use of the term “Obamacare” in reference the health care reform and an example at the end of her speech comparing the America’s “fight” against the deficit to waging war against totalitarian regimes during World War II, the speech was conducted in the same level tone that Obama and Ryan employed.

“Unfortunately, the president’s strategy for recovery was to spend a trillion dollars on a failed stimulus program, fueled by borrowed money,” said Bachmann. “The White House promised us that all the spending would keep unemployment under 8 percent. Not only did that plan fail to deliver, but within three months, the national jobless rate spiked to 9.4 percent. It hasn’t been lower for 20 straight months. While the government grew, we lost more than 2 million jobs.”

Fiscal policy will be squarely in the hands of Republicans, who now control the House of Representatives, and thus, the nation’s purse strings. All financial bills must originate in the House and Republican support will be required to fund all programs on Obama’s agenda.

Yet Republican control of the House does not necessarily mean control of the financial agenda of the nation. Both the Senate and presidency are in the hands of Democrats who will demand concessions if the Republicans want their own legislation passed.

Obama has used this occasion to draw a line in the sand and defend his key political pledges. Now the choice is squarely in the hands of Republicans as to if they wish to cross it or call the President on his offer of bipartisanship and see if his pledges of joint governance are more than just symbolic gestures.