President Barack Obama delivered an uplifting and hopeful State of the Union address to the nation that was long on innovation, education and infrastructure. The atmosphere seemed to reflect the mood in America and on Capitol Hill since the Tucson shootings.
In a bipartisan gesture, the president congratulated the new members of the 112th Congress, and newly elected House Speaker John Boehner. He then noted the Chamber's empty chair: "We pray for our friend Gabby Giffords." The members responded with a standing ovation.
The president said that "contentious debates" are good in a "robust Democracy." However the president's tone throughout was conversational and steady, rather than pointed. This was not the eloquent speech that the president is capable of delivering. Instead, he thoughtfully directed his remarks toward the future rather than focus on the past. "What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together," the president said referring to the evening's mixed seating arrangement, "but whether we can work together tomorrow."
His theme was, "We need to out innovate, out educate and out build the rest of the world." This line was welcomed with a standing ovation. Then the president followed with, "This is our Sputnik moment." Hopefully most of the 70 percent of Americans not yet born when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite understood the message.
The president then issued a challenge that 3 million cars on America's roads in 2015 be electric. He then called for more clean energy sources and a reduction in oil dependency. To pay for it he proposed cutting government subsidies to oil companies. "Last time I looked, they were doing okay," he said to laughter.
On education, he again asked parents to take on more responsibility at home. "We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated," he said, "but the winner of the science fair." This also garnered widespread applause. "We want to reward good teachers," he noted, "and stop making excuses for bad ones."
To counter the country's burgeoning deficit he called for a freeze on domestic spending for five years. The president cited his health-care reform measure as helping to cut costs, but called for reorganizing government so it will be more efficient. He made clear that cuts in programs should not come "on the backs of those who need it."
He then turned to social issues. "We should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration... and let's stop expelling talented young people," although the president was not specific. In a reference to the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" he said soldiers should not be stopped from "serving the country they love, because of who they love."
The president then noted, "Our infrastructure used to be the best -- but our lead has slipped." He called for a re-doubling of efforts to rebuild the nation's trains and highways. Offering no specifics on how to pay for the investment, he then called for an end to corporate tax loopholes and urged Congress to simplify the tax code.
The president got a laugh when he observed, "Now I've heard rumors that a few of you still have concerns about the new health care law." And he said he'd be willing to listened to changes, but, "What I am not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a pre-existing condition." He warned, "instead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let's fix what needs fixing and move forward."
President Obama ended his speech with this upbeat note: "It is because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong."
Republican Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, gave the GOP response. He opened cautiously, "some of his words are reassuring." But then he blamed President Obama for running up massive debt and increasing the size of government. Rep. Ryan was comfortable and conversational in his remarks. He talked of limiting government and restoring free enterprise. Republicans no doubt were happy with his performance. Then came the Tea Party response from Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. She hammered at "Obama-care" and showed an amateurish chart depicting massive deficit spending by the Democrats.
Because he can be such a talented speaker, President Obama's address did not achieve the high expectations some had. But America's slow economic recovery, his "shellacking" at the polls last November, and a tragic shooting in Tucson may have tempered his remarks. Steady as she goes, Mr. President.