Being in the House chamber during a State of the Union address, rowdy and packed with the entire federal government, is often compared to being at a high school pep rally. Despite this year's mixed-seating arrangement — designed to restrain the usual "rival football teams" show of cheers and grumbles from opposite sides of the aisle — the scene at President Obama's speech on Tuesday still reflected two sides reacting very differently to his rallying call.
Taking on the optimistic theme of "Winning the Future," the president steered clear of an exhaustive list of every last policy matter he wants to tackle. Although he briefly touched on a range of priorities, including a defense of health care reform and the DREAM Act, the primary focus was laying out his broad vision for the country: America needs to get globally competitive, fast, and that's going to take more than Republican-backed spending cuts. If we're to create jobs moving forward, we need to meet the demands of a new age by investing in education, innovation and infrastructure.
"The rules have changed," Obama said, explaining that the days of finding a good factory job without a college degree are over. "In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business."
With countries like China and India ahead of the curve, far outpacing America in education and new technologies, Obama explained his plan for not only catching up to but also outperforming the rest of the world.
The president's first speech before a joint session of the new Congress, now comprising a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a Senate with six new GOP seats, came at a critical juncture. Almost two years after the passage of the Recovery Act, the national unemployment rate has stalled at about 9 percent, while the jobless rate for African Americans has climbed significantly higher, to nearly 16 percent. In the face of Obama's repeated insistence that robust economic recovery will take time, millions of out-of-work Americans are increasingly losing patience.
"I think the president was a stalwart commander in chief tonight," said Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, who was encouraged by Obama's message. "He essentially told America that, despite the challenges of the past two years, we're on our way back up now and walking into a new door of opportunity."
These opportunities, as portrayed by Obama, must come from spending in innovation. "We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology and especially clean energy technology," he said of his vision for boosting research and development in his federal budget, which moves to Congress in a few weeks.
Specifically, Obama said he wants the nation to break its dependence on oil with biofuels, and lead the world in electric vehicles on the road — 1 million by 2015. He challenged Congress to help him reach his goal of 80 percent of America's electricity coming from clean energy sources by 2035. Within 25 years, he wants 80 percent of Americans to have access to high-speed rail. On education, particularly making higher education more affordable, he asked lawmakers to permanently extend the tuition tax credit worth $10,000 for four years of college.
Pleased as Cleaver was by this discussion of the future, he expressed concern about the possibility that African Americans could be shut out. "If we're successful in approving a transportation bill, for example, we've got to take great care to have legislation designed that will require minority participation," he said.
Angela Glover-Blackwell, CEO of the PolicyLink research institute, shared Cleaver's caution. "We know the future is low-income people of color," she said, adding that 40 percent of Americans under 18 are, in fact, racial minorities. "In order for these populations to benefit from the jobs that the president outlined tonight, there is going to have to be a lot of detailed nuance and targeting."
The more immediate challenge is whether Congress can work together to even make any of this happen. Judging from the sharply divided response on the House floor, it's a dicey proposition. Democrats in the room bestowed hearty applause at the president's ambitious proposals, but the same ideas were met by disgruntled silence from Republicans, many who had already rejected his gotta-spend-money-to-make-money approach long before the speech.
"It's a question whether Congress will work together, despite all the 'Kumbaya' of tonight," said Cleaver. "Many people came to the joint session tonight with dates from the other party, and it remains to be seen whether this was a one-night stand. We're going to have to deal with the hard problems tomorrow morning."
President Obama also admitted that renewed investments must go hand in hand with reductions in the federal deficit and proposed a five-year freeze on domestic spending. He claimed that this will reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade. His administration is also prepared to trim billions of dollars from the normally sacred-cow areas of defense, Medicare and Medicaid.
"I recognize that some in this chamber have already proposed deeper cuts," said Obama, alluding to a plan released last week by House Republicans to cut nondefense discretionary spending down to 2008 levels for the rest of the year, and then to the 2006 level for a decade. It's a move that would slash funding in precisely those areas that the president wants to grow, including education, transportation infrastructure, medical research and new energy. Despite the GOP stronghold on the House, the president pushed back.
"I'm willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without," he continued. "But let's make sure that we're not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens. And let's make sure what we're cutting is really excess weight. 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."
It's a clever-enough analogy, but probably not enough to budge the prevailing Republican view that additional government spending is unnecessary and wasteful.
"My response to the Republicans is that we can't afford not to make these investments in America's future," said Glover-Blackwell. "Just because we have challenges doesn't mean we turn our backs on children who need to be educated and adults who need to be put back to work. I'm disappointed that the battle lines are going to be drawn this way because it requires all of us to work together."
While on the subject of cuts, the president also resurrected the issue of Bush-era tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, on which he compromised last month with a two-year extension. "If we truly care about our deficit, we simply cannot afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Before we take money away from our schools, or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break," he said plainly. "It's not a matter of punishing their success. It's about promoting America's success."
To try to pull everyone back on board, the president closed with an inspirational anecdote about the spirit of American innovation. Recounting the story of Brandon Fisher of Pennsylvania, a small-business owner specializing in drilling technology, he revealed Fisher's design of equipment that led to the rescue of the trapped Chilean miners last October. Although his company was small, he concluded, it did big things.
"We do big things," Obama repeated, extending the concept to the nation. "From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That's how we win the future."
Of course, it remains to be seen whether the president can bust through the comparatively less lofty Capitol Hill gridlock to drive us there.
Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root.