© 2024
NPR News, Colorado Voices
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Obama And GOP Continue Old Battle: Activist Vs. Limited Government

Facing a joint session of Congress for the first time since the Republicans gained control of the House, President Obama used his second State of the Union address to outline a way forward for the nation that was a sharp contrast to that proposed by the opposition party.

In a speech that reflected the new reality of divided government in Washington, Obama underscored the need for bipartisan cooperation and that neither he nor Congress would be able to accomplish anything without working together.

While acknowledging the partisan differences, Obama sought to persuade his listeners that there were bigger matters at stake than who wins or loses.

"At stake right now is not who wins the next election – after all, we just had an election. At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It's whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It's whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world."

Still, the solutions that Obama and congressional Republicans offered for the nation's problems were so different, it was difficult to see just how the two sides will be able to reconcile their approaches going forward.

Gridlock seemed the likeliest outcome.

In fact, cynics could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Tuesday night was not so much about reconciling divergent positions as it was about trying to score early points in the 2012 general election campaign that appears to be underway already.

While Obama's speech was heavy on the need for the U.S. to make wise investments if it is to remain competitive with China and India, the Republican response by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) argued that what placed the nation's future most at risk was its fiscal condition.

"We face a crushing burden of debt. The debt will soon eclipse our entire economy, and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead.

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.

No economy can sustain such high levels of debt and taxation. The next generation will inherit a stagnant economy and a diminished country."

In short, the president was arguing that the nation could not afford not to make the investments. Meanwhile, Ryan's position was that it couldn't afford to make them, period.

Then there the separate response of Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann who spoke for the Tea Party Express who echoed Ryan's concerns about the nation's fiscal condition and appeared to blame Obama for everything but the nation's bedbug epidemic. You got the strong sense, though, that given more time, she might have found a way to work that in, too.

Essentially, what the nation was treated to was a continuation of an ideological fight that goes back to its founding. Clear away all the mind-numbing talking points and it was the age-old fight over just how strong or weak the federal government should be.

Thomas Jefferson, the lover of limited government, and Alexander Hamilton, the proponent of a strong federal government, would have instantly recognized the themes — if not phrases and acronyms like "information technology" and NASA in the president's speech.

Both Obama's and Ryan's speeches began by acknowledging the tragedy in Tucson and the missing member of the Arizona delegation, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who faces an arduous recovery from a gunshot wound to the brain.

The Tucson mass shootings made the night more introspective than such nights tend to be in Washington. But the partisanship was tamer in the way of a performing circus lion: You still don't want to turn your back on it.

As Obama and his aides had indicated for days, the president's speech was heavy on the need for the federal government to make investments he said were necessary to assure the U.S. can compete successfully in the global economy.

Aware of the anxieties many Americans have about whether the nation's best days are behind it, Obama played on Americans' pride, ingenuity and their can-do spirit. He argued that with the right spending, policies and determination, Americans could weather the current uncertainties and retain the American Dream for future generations.

"So yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn't discourage us. It should challenge us. Remember — for all the hits we've taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We are home to the world's best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any other place on Earth...

… The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can't just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, 'The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.' Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age."

Obama focused on three areas for investments: innovation, education and infrastructure, citing concrete examples where government had made a difference.

He cited, for instance, two Michigan brothers who, with the help of a government loan, converted their struggling roofing business into a manufacturer of solar shingles.

But, again, partisanship, or what might be interpreted as such, was never very far under the surface.

Citing his administration's achievements in education, Obama called his "Race to the Top" program — in which states boost their educational standards to compete for federal funding — "the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. He said it should be the approach the U.S. follows this year as it replaces the Bush administration's signature, if controversial, "No Child Left Behind."

That was guaranteed to rankle Bush loyalists, who view "No Child" as having introduced long-needed accountability into federal education funding. And since teachers' unions, an important part of the Democratic base, hated NCLB, there was that element, too.

Among the president's major goals for the speech was providing an explanation to the nation for why, in coming weeks and months ,they would hear him oppose congressional Republican spending cuts to the kinds of investments he proposes. And he wanted to give voters reasons to oppose such cuts as well.

To that end, he left his listeners with a fairly striking mental image to mull over.

"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."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.