Both sides agree that a thriving middle class is key to American prosperity, and that tax reform is part of the solution to chronic federal deficits. They both call for finally addressing the issue of undocumented immigrants.
Otherwise, President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address of his second term and the Republican response by rising GOP star Sen. Marco Rubio showed how deeply entrenched each side remains in long-held positions. It all portends continued political dysfunction in Washington.
In his fourth State of the Union address and seventh speech to a joint sitting of Congress, Obama challenged legislators on Tuesday night to join him in taking on “our generation’s task” to ignite the growth of a “rising, thriving middle class.”
“It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country–the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love,” Obama said, sounding familiar themes from his re-election campaign.
He emphasized economic growth and job creation, and insisted that his proposals would not increase the nation’s deficit, though the White House offered no price tag on his initiatives.
Obama also made an emotional plea for Congress to hold votes on controversial proposals for tougher gun laws.
At the same time, Obama called for legislators to work together for the good of the country, saying Americans “expect us to put the nation’s interests before party.”
In delivering the Republican message afterward, Rubio signaled little acceptance of what Obama proposed. He repeated longstanding GOP criticism of what he described as job-killing, growth-stunting bigger government.
“Presidents in both parties–from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan–have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle-class prosperity,” said Rubio, a Tea Party favorite considered a rising star in the Republican Party. “But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems.”
According to Rubio, the president’s solution “to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.”
The night of competing messages showed that despite Obama’s election victory in November, hopes for a more pragmatic political climate appeared unrealistic.
With the government facing deep spending cuts mandated by a previous agreement between Obama and Congress to raise the federal debt ceiling, the president on Tuesday night renewed his call for a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan that includes new tax revenue coupled with spending cuts.
In a jab at congressional Republicans who seek to shrink deficits and the size of government through deep spending cuts, Obama said “deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan.”
Rubio’s response blamed Obama for weakening U.S. stability and potential by continued deficit spending and failing to take on needed reforms to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
“The real cause of our debt is that our government has been spending $1 trillion more than it takes in every year. That’s why we need a balanced budget amendment,” he said, accusing Obama of wanting to leave Medicare unchanged so that it goes bankrupt.
However, Obama called for “modest” reforms to Medicare in his speech, repeating proposals that were raised in previous deficit-reduction negotiations but regarded by Republicans as insufficient.
Obama continued his push for Congress to act on politically volatile issues such as immigration reform.
Other measures proposed in the speech included a paycheck fairness act intended to make it easier for women to fight salary discrimination without losing their jobs, raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour, developing new alternative energy hubs in the country, and helping people refinance their mortgages at today’s lower interest rates.
Headlines of the day also influenced the speech.
Obama mentioned North Korea’s latest underground nuclear test, which the State Department labeled “provocative” and “extremely regrettable.”
With victims of gun violence in the audience at the Capitol, including former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Obama continued his push for tighter gun laws opposed by the influential National Rifle Association (NRA) and legislators from both parties.
He mentioned 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, the Chicago girl killed by gun violence after returning home from taking part in inauguration activities in Washington, saying she was shot a mile from his home in the city.
The girl’s parents were guests of first lady Michelle Obama at the address. In the most powerful moment of the speech, he listed people whose lives have been “torn apart by gun violence.” They included Pendleton’s parents, the Giffords, and the families of the Newtown victims. Obama repeatedly insisted “they deserve a vote” as the audience cheered loudly.
In his response, Rubio sounded the NRA line that “unconstitutionally undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to” reduce gun violence in the country.
On foreign policy, Obama announced that this time next year, another 34,000 U.S. troops will have returned home from Afghanistan. The move will reduce by more than half the current force level there of 66,000 troops. Obama and NATO previously announced that Afghan forces will take the lead in combat missions this year.
On climate change, Obama promised executive action, if Congress failed to address what he called a litany of evidence that the nation and the world face. This, he said, includes more frequent and powerful storms, wildfires and drought.
One new measure from the president will be an executive order signed Tuesday to address the country’s most basic cyber-security needs.
The order will make it easier for private companies in control of our nation’s critical infrastructure to share information about cyber attacks with the government. In return, the Department of Homeland Security will share “sanitized” classified information with companies about attacks believed to be occurring or that are about to take place.
Rubio is leading an effort by some Republicans to shift party policy on immigration reform by accepting the concept backed by Obama and Democrats that the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants should have a path to legal status.
However, he neglected to mention specifics of an immigration reform plan in his response Tuesday.
When Obama raised the immigration issue in his speech, a bipartisan group of senators, including Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, stood and applauded together to signal bipartisan support for moving forward.
Tom Cohen | CNN