Obama, Republicans frame debate for 2012

2011-01-26 12:49

President Barack Obama took a significant step toward retooling his

presidency with a challenge to lawmakers to rise above partisan differences to

tackle economic and budget problems “decades in the making”.

And while there remained stark differences in approach between the

president and the Republicans with whom he now shares power, Obama made some

striking concessions in the name of national unity – and asked others to do the


In a state of the union address made sombre by the recent Arizona

shootings, Obama last night coupled a call for budget restraint with a plea for

more American innovation to allow the United States to better compete in the

global economy.

“The rules have changed” and the US must not let itself be left

behind by other fast-growing economies like China and India, Obama said.

Obama and newly empowered Republicans each framed their rival

political themes, ones that will carry them to the 2012 elections.

Obama’s speech was relatively subdued. “He avoided competing with

his audience,” said Wayne Fields, a professor at Washington University in St

Louis who studies presidential rhetoric. “They seemed as much a part of the show

as he was. The message from both sides was that we’re going to work together in

a civil society.”

With signs that the recovery is beginning to pick up steam, the

occasion gave both parties a chance to look forward – not back to the economic

mess in the nation’s rear-view mirror.

“Now that the worst of the recession is over, we have to confront

the fact that our government spends more than it takes in,” Obama told a House

chamber filled with many new House and Senate faces, mostly Republican


Obama’s wish list included new government “investments” in

education and infrastructure such as roads and bridges and more market-opening

deals with other nations.

He called for more spending on high-speed rail and high-speed

internet. And in a key concession, one that quickly riled environmentalists,

Obama called for spending on clean-energy technology – but for the first time

included nuclear power, “clean” coal and natural gas.

While praising a call by Obama to end oil subsidies, League of

Conservation President Gene Karpinski said, “We object to his attempt to

redefine clean energy to include nuclear and so-called ‘clean’ coal.”

“At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this

country, or somewhere else,” Obama said. “To win the future, we’ll need to take

on challenges that have been decades in the making.”

At the same time, Obama proposed deficit-cutting steps, including a

five-year freeze in spending for some domestic programmes. And he called for a

reduction in the taxes corporations pay but “without raising the deficit.”

Republicans scoffed at Obama’s concept of “investments” and

suggested the president was merely seeking to continue a longtime spending

spree. They’ve put tackling the nation’s $14 trillion (about R100?trillion) debt

at the centere of their agenda, beginning with spending cuts larger and sooner

than Obama has proposed.

It’s a goal that resonates with conservative tea party factions

within the Republican ranks. Republicans assert that taming soaring deficits,

not adding to the debt, will put the economy back on the path of growth and spur

private-sector job growth.

Earlier yesterday, the Republican-controlled House voted 256-165 to

return most domestic agencies to 2008 budget levels, a largely symbolic


Obama agrees that tackling trillion-dollar-plus annual deficits is

a national priority – but a long-range one, not one that needs to be taken on

too aggressively with the unemployment rate stubbornly stuck above 9%.

But even the House Republicans’ effort at fiscal austerity would

only make a small dent in the nation’s debt.

“Americans are sceptical of both political parties, and that

scepticism is justified – especially when it comes to spending,” said House

Budget Committee Chairperson Paul Ryan, in a prepared text for the Republican

response to Obama’s speech. “So hold us all accountable.”

And, trying to strike the same tone of congeniality that Obama

used, Ryan praised the president for focusing on the economy and deficits. “He

was right to do so, and some of his words were reassuring.”

As they laid out their positions, the risks were high for both


Obama needs to win back independent voters, who helped him win the

presidency in 2008 but deserted Democratic candidates in favour of Republicans

in last November’s midterm elections.

Despite their new clout, Republicans, too, are mindful that

repeating the gains they made last November in the 2012 election cycle won’t be

easy – and they need to avoid the possibility of gridlock.

“Everybody, not just Obama but members of Congress, want to have

something to show for the next two years,” said Rutgers political science

professor Ross Baker.

For the first time in a while, Obama has some wind at his back,

something Republicans hadn’t counted on just a few months back. His State of the

Union address followed a moving speech after the Tucson shootings and a

well-executed summit and state dinner with President Hu Jintao of China.

Ever since what he called his party’s “shellacking” in last

November’s elections, Obama has moved to mend fences with business and move

toward the center. He extended existing Bush-era tax cuts, introduced new ones,

completed a free-trade agreement with South Korea, and ordered a government-wide

review of regulations with a goal of weeding out ones that hinder


For the first time, Obama vowed last night to veto any bills sent

to him that include “earmarks”, pet spending provisions pushed by individual

lawmakers for their districts. It was a turnabout for the president, who in 2009

said earmarks were fine if “done right”.

But it wasn’t all concessions. Obama strongly defended his health

care overhaul from Republican efforts to dismantle it.

In all his recent dealings, Obama “had to bow to practical

realities”, said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“What he is contesting,” Mann adds, “is the Republican characterisation of him

as this out-of-control liberal.”


Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.