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Obama Takes Congress to Task in SOTU Address

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
President Barack Obama greets Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Tuesday at her last State of the Union address before she resigns this week.

President Barack Obama delivered a populist, election-year poke at a dysfunctional Congress in a State of the Union address Tuesday night filled with policy proposals and urgent rhetoric aimed at aiding the middle class.

The heart of Obama’s argument is that the middle class is in danger of slipping away, and that he needs to act — with or without Congress — to help give them a fair shake.

“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules,” he said.

Obama said he would work with Members of Congress if they would work with him, and he urged them to follow the example of the nation’s military in coming together to solve problems. “But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place,” he said.

Obama repeatedly acknowledged that the nation’s biggest problems may not be solved this year given Congress’ dysfunction.

“No matter what party they belong to, I bet most Americans are thinking the same thing right now: Nothing will get done this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that because Washington is broken. Can you blame them for feeling a little cynical?” he asked. He lectured Congress for the “fiasco” of last year’s debt ceiling fight and lamented the “corrosive” effect of money in politics.

Obama also took aim at Congress’ own ethics and Senate filibusters.

Then-Sen. Obama embraced filibusters when Democrats were in the minority under President George W. Bush, but now he seems to have had enough of them. Obama proposed limiting filibusters to 90 days for judicial and “public service” nominations — a plan akin to the “nuclear option” that previous Senate majority leaders have suggested.

Obama also proposed tough new ethics rules for Members of Congress and lobbyists — rules that are sure to have Members of both parties complaining. He proposed conflict-of-interest rules banning Members of Congress from holding stock in companies that have business before their committees or from taking any official action that would benefit their financial interests. And he proposed banning lobbyists from bundling campaign donations for lawmakers.

But as expected, most of the president’s speech focused on jobs, with the president trying to put a shine on his record as one that took the economy from freefall to growth. For example, Obama claimed credit for saving the auto industry and restoring private-sector job growth.

“The state of our union is getting stronger. And we’ve come too far to turn back now,” he said.

Obama’s new proposals included new tax breaks for insourcing and manufacturing, more offshore oil leases, enforcement of trade rules, and enhancements to education and job training.

Obama also spotlighted a fleshed-out “Buffett rule” that would set a minimum tax rate of 30 percent for millionaires — a policy that would double GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s tax bill.

While whacking the rich, Obama pushed for Congress to make it easier for homeowners who are keeping up with their mortgage payments to refinance, punish colleges for tuition hikes and prevent a tax increase for the middle class.

The speech also had its warmer moments — from the standing ovation that welcomed Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) for her last appearance on the floor before her resignation to the boisterous applause that marked the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Obama and Giffords exchanged a warm embrace and several words before he took the podium to deliver what likely was the most important speech of his presidency to date. Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, watched from the gallery with first lady Michelle Obama, as the recovering Congresswoman — shot in the head just over a year ago — rose to cheer the president on immigration, education and innovation policies. She gently pumped her left fist, watching Obama deliver his speech from the first row of the House chamber and flanked by two Arizona colleagues, Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva and Republican Rep. Jeff Flake.

The address was marked by moments that have become typical of Obama’s speeches, with House Republicans barely leaving their seats except for a rare line that aligned with their interests. The House GOP leadership team, for example, rose to loud cheers at Obama’s assertion that the nation has “a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years and ... will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade.”

Earlier in Obama’s address, when the president vowed to fight “any effort to return” to the policies that allowed for financial crisis, a female voice could be heard from the floor yelling “Keystone pipeline!” over the cheers of Democrats and silence from Republicans. The administration rejected the authorization of the oil pipeline project earlier this month.

With a focus on manufacturing, Obama put some heartland Republicans on the spot. When he talked about a revived domestic auto industry and the federal bailout that boosted it, many Republicans did not stand. But Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), up for re-election in 2012 and from a state with serious economic ties to the industry, rose to cheer, nearly alone in his block of seats.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, meanwhile, delivered the Republican response, ripping the president for having a “pro-poverty policy” that stifles energy projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. And he said House Republicans should be given credit for taking on the nation’s challenges.

“It’s not fair and it’s not true for the president to attack Republicans in Congress as obstacles on these questions,” Daniels said in prepared speech excerpts. “They and they alone have passed bills to reduce borrowing, reform entitlements and encourage new job creation, only to be shot down nearly time and again by the president and his Democrat Senate allies.”

Daniels, who considered a run for president last year, said Obama is to blame for the divisions on Capitol Hill.

“No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others,” the governor said.

Daniels took a bleaker view of the country’s current state than did Obama.

“When President Obama claims that the state of our union is anything but grave, he must know in his heart that this is not true,” he said.

Still, Daniels seemed to acknowledge that Republicans have to put concrete policy prescriptions on the table in order to defeat Obama in November.

“An opposition that would earn its way back to leadership must offer not just criticism of failures that anyone can see, but a positive and credible plan to make life better,” he said. He noted that Republicans would push tax reform and changes to entitlements.

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