He opened with a populist rallying cry about corporate profits being “at all-time highs” while middle-class incomes “have barely budged.” He closed with a battle cry for gun control, in the name of the dead children of Newtown, the gravely injured former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a Chicago high school majorette who loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss.
In between, President Barack Obama delivered a State of the Union speech Tuesday night with lots of red meat for Democratic partisans but precious little hope to end the partisan gridlock that has paralyzed Washington through his first term and into his second.
For nearly an hour, before a House chamber filled with dozens of victims of gun violence, Obama continued to tweak Republicans on issues ranging from tax cuts for the rich to proposed cuts to Medicare and Social Security. But he offered little in the way of a bipartisan olive branch — except for his carefully worded praise for bipartisan efforts to reach agreement on comprehensive immigration reform.
“Obama gave little ground to his adversaries,” said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Galston, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, said Obama “advanced a vision of an activist government” in “a high-stakes gamble” that, if it fails, would leave him with “an unpleasant choice between negotiating with a weakened hand and accepting gridlock.”
If the president’s goal was to rile up Republicans, he clearly succeeded. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, called the address “long on rhetoric and short on constructive ideas.” Republican pollster Steve Lombardo said it was “a very liberal, progressive speech. The content of this speech contains far more government action than anything from (Bill) Clinton.”
But the same things about the speech that Republicans loathed, Democrats loved.
“Our No. 1 priority must be keeping our economy growing, and President Obama laid out a bold road map for doing just that,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “He made an eloquent case for fixing our nation’s broken immigration system, reducing gun violence and ensuring that no American voter is forced to wait in line for hours to cast a ballot.”
Republicans, in turn, criticized Obama for what was missing from the speech — a framework for reducing the federal deficit or slowing the growth of entitlement spending.
“President Obama failed to present a real plan to balance the budget and begin to pay down our debt,” said Republican consultant and former Senate aide Matt Mackowiak, “instead recycling tired liberal ideas that are dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled House.”
But Obama’s audience was not sitting in the House chamber. Instead, it was Americans watching on their television sets or their laptops and iPads. He pushed for universal pre-kindergarten education and a $9 per hour minimum wage. He pushed for higher taxes on wealthy Americans and fewer tax breaks for corporations. And he strongly endorsed government action to slow global warming.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, in the official Republican response to Obama’s speech, chided the president for using divisive rhetoric.
“Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich,” Rubio said. “I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors.”
Undaunted, Obama pushed on, ending with a dramatic plea for congressional action — or at least votes — on his gun-control proposals.
“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,” he said.
“They deserve a vote. They deserve a vote. They deserve a vote. Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora serve a vote. The families of Oak Creek and Tucson and Blacksburg — and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence — they deserve a simple vote.”
Obama’s imagery may have struck a responsive chord in many American homes. But not among skeptical Republicans.
“Overall, it was a highly partisan and uninspired speech, which I suspect will not change much on Capitol Hill,” said Mackowiak.