WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama evoked a Cold War feud from some 50 years past on Tuesday, urging Americans to seize its “Sputnik” moment as he pushed for more taxpayer dollars to propel the ailing nation back to economic greatness.
After the Soviet Union beat the U.S. to space in 1957 with the launch of its Sputnik satellite, “we had no idea how to beat them to the moon,” Obama said in the second state of the union address of his presidency.
“The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist. 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.”
There was just one problem with his analogy. The U.S. was not grappling with a US$14 trillion national debt in the late 1950s, a sorry state of affairs Obama only touched on in his address when he called for a five-year freeze on domestic, non-defence spending.
“The freeze will require painful cuts,” he said. “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.”
The spending freeze would amount to a slight expansion of Obama’s call in last year’s state of the union for a three-year freeze. Yet money continued to be spent in the months to follow, and domestic spending represents only a small portion of the country’s total outlays.
The president did, however, give the nod to Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s plan to chop US$78 billion from the defence budget, a generally sacrosanct yet gargantuan $700 billion portion of the country’s annual spending output.
Obama toiled away on the hotly anticipated speech for months. It was meant to outline his agenda in the months to come, including efforts to invigorate the still-sickly U.S. economy and to tackle the debt.
The bulk of his remarks, however, stressed the importance of creating jobs and bringing the U.S. into the 21st century with spending on innovation, education and infrastructure as nations like China and India swell with newfound economic might.
Making a shift to the centre of the political spectrum, Obama defended the social programs so cherished by Democrats, including Medicare, the Social Security pension program and his health-care overhaul.
But he also came out in support of measures held dear by Republicans, including the spending freeze, a corporate tax rate cut, a federal bureaucracy shakeup and the end of earmarks aimed at getting lawmakers re-elected in federal spending initiatives.
Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives, and consequently the nation’s purse strings, have been up in arms in recent days about the new spending initiatives. They seemed underwhelmed by Obama’s state of the union proposals on deficit reduction, and have argued that doling out more government funds with the debt so astronomically high is foolhardy.
“At stake right now is not who wins the next election — after all, we just had an election,” he said. “At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else.”
The nationally televised address came at the halfway point of the president’s term, essentially serving as the kickoff to his re-election bid in 2012.
Recent polls have suggested Obama’s popularity is on a significant upswing since the November mid-term elections, boosted in part by his speech in Tucson calling for civility following the attempted assassination on Jan. 8 of Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic congresswoman from Arizona.
Six people were killed in the attack on Giffords; she’s still recovering in Houston after taking a bullet to the brain.
The fanfare surrounding the annual state of the union, held in the House of Representatives chamber in the ornate Capitol building, indeed had a more civilized tone this year due to the assassination attempt.
Amid concerns that the country’s vitriolic political rhetoric might have played a role in the Tucson mayhem, legislators were determined to show the American public they could bring some manners back to politics.
Rather than sitting on opposite sides of the aisle, a number of lawmakers from opposing parties partnered up and sat next to one another during Obama’s speech in an unusual display some media wags referred to as “the prom.” As legislators flooded into the chamber before the president’s arrival, there appeared to be a lot more friendly bipartisan chit-chat than there was last year.
There were also no angry outbursts like the one that marred last year’s state of the union, when a Republican congressman shouted: “You lie!” at the president as he spoke of health-care reform.
Six of nine Supreme Court justices were in attendance. And among those accompanying first lady Michelle Obama to the state of the union was the family of the nine-year-old girl who died during the Giffords assassination attempt, a Giffords intern whose quick actions might have saved his boss and the trauma surgeons who treated the congresswoman.
“Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is part of something greater — something more consequential than party or political preference,” Obama said. “We are part of the American family.”
Obama, indeed, declared a new era of shared responsibility in his address, saying new laws will only pass with support from both Democrats and Republicans alike.
“We will move forward together, or not at all — for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics,” he said.
With a presidential election less than two years away, Obama also made the case that the measures his administration has taken throughout the devastating economic recession are working to turn the economy around while also helping millions of middle-class Americans.
He may have a point.
A survey released earlier this week by the National Association for Business Economics had a more positive forecast than it’s had in more than two years, when the American economy went into a tailspin and bled four million jobs. It found that all major industry groups in the U.S. were reporting growing demand for their products and services, something that generally suggests imminent job growth.
“We are poised for progress,” Obama said. “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.”
Republicans — and their offshoot, the Tea Party — rebutted Obama’s address. Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House of Representatives’ budget committee, provided the Republican response by warning America’s day of reckoning “is around the corner.”
“Our debt is out of control,” said Ryan, who’s advocated significant budget cuts, including to beloved social programs like Social Security and Medicare. “We cannot deny it. Instead we must confront it responsibly … endless borrowing is not a strategy. Spending cuts have to come first.”
Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, meantime, delivered the Tea Party’s response in combative, anti-Obama remarks that featured a call to repeal his health-care overhaul.