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Obama Issues the Challenge

Tom Williams/Roll Call

President Barack Obama spent the first two years of his term promising to deliver change. In his second State of the Union address Tuesday night, he changed tacks: telling the nation that it is at a crossroads and that all Americans need to take part in its transition or be left behind.

In a speech that echoed the voices of Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy, who led the nation through another period of economic and emotional transition, Obama hammered the message that the American dream is still within reach but only if people can meet the demands of a new age.

“The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can’t just stand still,” he said. “We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business.”

The president began his address by congratulating the new GOP House majority and acknowledging the victims of the Arizona shootings, noting the chair left empty in the chamber by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who is still recovering from a gunshot wound to the head. Obama’s speech was gentler in tone than his first State of the Union a year ago, and the atmospherics of the chamber were also friendlier: Dozens of Members of different parties broke tradition and sat side-by-side, rather than sitting separately by party.

“What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow,” Obama said.

“I believe we can. I believe we must. That’s what the people who sent us here expect of us.”

Obama, speaking for about an hour, used much of his address laying out his vision for moving the country forward based on five themes: innovation, education, building, reform and responsibility. And at the heart of his road map is a plan to put the nation on a strict fiscal diet while also making targeted investments in clean energy and infrastructure to boost the economy. He also issued one veto threat: Obama said he would reject any bill that came to his desk containing earmarks.

One of the president’s most significant proposals is a five-year freeze on annual domestic spending. The move would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over 10 years, making it the lowest proportion of the gross domestic product since Dwight Eisenhower was president. Republicans have made the debt a centerpiece of their agenda over the next two years and have called for major spending cuts to get there.

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