President Obama insisted last night that the state of the union is getting stronger, even as his words hinted that so much of America—the pathway to the middle class, the federal budget, and bipartisanship—lies on shaky ground.
The president unveiled solutions last night in his address to a joint chamber of Congress: Raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour and indexing it to inflation, pre-kindergarten education, investing in roads and bridges, and funding for scientific research, among the laundry list of domestic and foreign policies he raced through in an address that sounded as fine-tuned and poll-tested as anything he said in the run-up to his re-election.
RELATED: Read the full text of Obama Speech
“Nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime,” Obama said. “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”
But his words did little to rally support from the House Republican majority. Each new initiative exposed the fault lines between Democrats who view the government as nurturing economic growth and GOP lawmakers who see it as an obstruction to prosperity.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Oh., sat behind Obama’s right shoulder during the speech, his face scowling in a way that suggested he had just quaffed a horrible Merlot. The applause from the rest of his caucus was tepid. Hours before the speech, Boehner was dismissing any ideas that the president might uncork. “I think the president is out of ideas when it comes to how to fix the economy because everything that it seems he wants to do is more tax hikes and more stimulus spending,” he told NBC News.
In the Republican response, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio painted Obama as an ideologue who believes that free enterprise is the “cause of our problems,” saying that a smaller government would unleash an economy growing at a 4 percent clip—well above the historic average.
“As you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more,” Rubio said. “More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back.”
But any deficit reduction will involve reducing the government’s footprint to some degree.
Obama was willing to entertain “modest” reforms to Medicare. He proposed in the State of the Union an alternative to the automatic sequestration cuts to Defense and domestic programs—reducing Medicare subsidies to drug companies and “ask more” from wealthier seniors.
The president said the rest of the sequester could be offset by closing tax loopholes for wealthier Americans and companies—
proposal once supported by Boehner that he has since disowned after a deal earlier this year to raise tax rates on households with incomes above $450,000.
His argument catered to the notion that Republicans care about the rich, with their alternative the sequester involving cuts to social programs.
“After all, why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks?” Obama said. “How is that fair? Why is it that deficit reduction is a big emergency justifying cuts in Social Security benefits, but not closing some loopholes? How does that promote growth?”
Obama rehashed much of his previous playbook on rehabilitating an economy still crippled by the 2008 financial meltdown. He promised to take action on climate change and promote the development of the renewable energy sector, saying he would work through executive actions if Congress does not answer his call—which by almost every count they won’t.
He plans to introduce a college value scorecard for a nation of university graduates increasingly buried in debt. He talked about reviving abandoned American factories and supporting scientific research.
“Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy,” Obama said. “Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race.”
But the stark divide about what government can do for workers came on the minimum wage, a campaign proposal that faded as a priority once Obama entered the White House in 2009. Obama cast this economic issue—one at the heart of the research by his top economic adviser Alan Krueger—as a moral issue.
“Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour,” he said. “This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families. It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead. For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pockets.”
Rubio never mentioned the minimum wage in his rebuttal, even as he said Obama wrongly characterized the GOP as caring only about the rich. The Florida senator said his policies would “protect” his neighbors, noting that when the government raises taxes or writes new regulations, businesses “pass the costs on to their employees through fewer hours, lower pay and even layoffs.”
But perhaps the biggest piece of evidence of the partisan split came on the issue of gun control.
The December mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Ct. and the gunfire that recently killed 15-year old Chicagoan Hadiya Pendleton—whose band performed weeks ago at Obama’s inauguration—has led to an effort to curb the availability of assault weapons.
In an unusually emotional turn for the State of the Union, Obama begged that the legislation itself not perish in congressional gridlock. He didn’t press for their passage, but instead asked members for one thing his reforms might not ever get—a vote.
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress,” he said. “If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”