There was a slight different atmosphere in the chamber of the House of Representatives for last night’s State of the Union speech. With an empty chair in honor of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering from an assassination attempt, the mood was subdued as members of both parties wore ribbons to show solidarity with their colleague. The parties went one step further by bucking tradition and abandoning their customary partisan seating arrangement and mixing with their colleagues from across the aisle. The symbolism continued when six of the Justices of the Supreme Court, including Chief Justice John Roberts, took their seats. There had been some speculation that some members of the high Court might choose not to attend due to the controversy of last year’s State of the Union speech when President Obama directly criticized the Court for its ruling in a key campaign finance case. Standing behind the President last night was the new Speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), claiming the podium and gavel after the Republican takeover of the lower chamber of Congress following the midterm election.
Despite the best behavior of members of Congress and the customary pomp of the event, there was a practical goal that President Obama had in mind for last night’s address. Knowing he now faced a Republican, and seemingly hostile, majority in the House of Representatives and public anxiety over the state of the economy, the President had to provide a vision for the nation’s economic recovery. In that sense, his most important audience was not in the House chamber but the millions watching on television and over the Internet, and listening by radio. Eschewing the minutia of public policy and the language of a policy wonk, President Obama sought to paint the ‘big picture” of American opportunity by using the theme of “winning the future” as a rallying cry in three specific areas: innovation, education, and the rebuilding of the nation’s transportation and information technology infrastructure. The President noted the nation had the capacity to “out innovate, out educate, and out build the rest of the world.”
By sticking to a more “global” theme, the President hoped to avoid the contentiousness of previous State of the Union addresses, and to demonstrate to the viewing audience that he has a vision for the nation’s future. On several occasions the President referenced the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite as a way of challenging Americans to think big again. While providing few details, President Obama spoke to the goal of clean energy use, and urging investments in multiple types of alternative energy – solar, nuclear, clean coal, wind – to make the nation less dependent on oil. He took a swipe at the oil industry when he suggested that, given the oil company's profits, the nation should stop subsidizing the industry and reinvest in clean energy initiatives.
President Obama spent considerable time making the case for education reform, calling his “Race to the Top” initiative the most extensive effort at school reform in a generation. He also called for the replacement of the Bush era No Child Left Behind Act with legislation that is more flexible and capable of elevating public education. The President made it a point to salute the nation’s teachers, comparing South Korea’s reverence for educators with our nation’s disrespect of teachers. He encouraged the weeding out of bad teachers but called on the nation to honor teachers, going as far as to encouraging young people to consider a career in teaching as a public service to the nation. President Obama also challenged Congress to pave the way for students who are in the country illegally to become citizens, and noted that U.S. trained students who lack citizenship status often return to their native country and compete against our nation. He also spoke to the role that the nation’s community colleges and universities can play in preparing a new generation of Americans for work in the new economy.
President Obama again championed the rebuilding of the nation’s transportation infrastructure and the deployment of high speed Internet access across the country. He complained the nation’s crumbling network of bridges, roads and rail transportation is not keeping pace with developments in other countries.The President pointed out that work had begun in California on a high speed rail corridor but that innovation in transportation must be widespread if the nation is to begin its competitive edge. Knowing the Republicans in attendance would be keyed on government spending, the President also called for a five year freeze in annual domestic spending and pledged to make the difficult choices to bring the deficit under control. He cited the willingness of Defense Secretary Robert Gates to cut defense spending and said he was willing to entertain cuts in other key areas. He made it a point though, to stress that the cuts should be strategic and not done in a way that it would undermine progress or made on the backs of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
As the President so aptly and deftly described and challenged, moving the country forward will require cooperation between both parties far beyond the symbolism of the evening. While the mixed seating arrangement helped temper the bipartisan evident at most State of the Union addresses, when the camera panned the floor it was clear that some Republican members were working to restrain their reactions. At one point the President made light of the tension between the parties when he joked that he heard some members of Congress would like to change the health care reform law. He quickly switched gears and said he was willing to fix what doesn’t work under the new law and pointed out a problem small businesses are facing in complying with the law as correction he was willing to make. However, he warned that he was not willing to revert back to an environment where insurers could deny coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions, pointing out an invited guest who had undergone surgery for a serious condition. The President urged Congress not to “re-fight” old battles over health care but to move forward.
Photo: The White House