Obama’s confident State of the Union address mixed straight talk with a patriotic call to action as he rode a tide of improbable political momentum less than three months after a Republican mid-term election rout.
The president spoke to a television audience of millions from the House of Representatives, seeking to unleash a torrent of innovation to transform the economy after the most brutal meltdown in generations.
Obama conjured up a sepia-tinted vision of an America left behind after globalisation changed the rules overnight, bemoaning the loss of a working class lifestyle bankrolled by decent pay and benefits.
“The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business,” Obama said, noting that rising powers like India and China were now highly competitive. But he added Americans should not give up the fight.
“Yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn’t discourage us. It should challenge us,” he said, citing US pathfinders from the Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison to Google and Facebook.
“We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.
“We do big things. Our destiny remains our choice,” Obama added in a speech punctuated by multiple ovations that sought to consign two years of economic gloom to the past, as his 2012 reelection race stirs.
The president and members of his cabinet planned to fan out across the US yesterday to highlight the president’s plan outlined in the speech.
Yet no new initiatives were unveiled in the speech for immediate job creation, with unemployment pegged at 9.4%. With its offer to redo corporate tax rates, the address also seemed another tack to the political centre ground where US presidential races are won.
But the address was sparse on policy nuts and bolts, and the idealistic call for unity appeared at odds with ugly Washington politics.
Obama dealt only sparingly with one of the most divisive issues, the $1.3-trillion US deficit, though he said the budget gap needed to be constrained, and partially embraced recommendations of a bipartisan fiscal commission.
The president also warned that Republican plans to cut investments in education or innovation were like “lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine”.
Republicans rejected his prescriptions.
“Unfortunately, instead of restoring the fundamentals of economic growth, he engaged in a stimulus spending spree that not only failed to deliver on its promise to create jobs, but also plunged us even deeper into debt,” said Republican House budget chief Paul Ryan in his party’s official response.
“Our nation is approaching a tipping point. We are at a moment, where if government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America’s best century will be considered our past century.”
Meanwhile, dozens of lawmakers ditched the usual partisan seating plan to sit side by side, in a nod to Obama’s call for civility after the shooting. They wore black and white ribbons to honour Giffords.
Obama called for a raft of measures to make America leaner, and more nimble in the global economy. His policy prescriptions included a plan to draw 80% of US electricity from clean energy by 2035 and a school reform programme to promote science and learning.
On foreign policy, the president renewed his vow to start withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan in July but warned of “tough fighting ahead”.
He reiterated that America would defeat al-Qaida and noted his vow to bring all troops out of Iraq would become a reality later this year.