Congressional Democrats itching to move past a politically treacherous health care debate hailed President Barack Obamas State of the Union address as signaling a much-needed change in focus to jobs and the economy.
Obama opened his speech with an appeal for the Senate to follow the lead the House set at the end of last year by sending him a jobs bill without delay. And while he called for lawmakers to push forward with health care reform, he offered few specifics about how to do so. Some Democrats eyeing soaring unemployment and a souring political environment interpreted the pitch as a green light to change the subject from a debate that has divided the country and the party.
It was refreshing to see the priority and the focus on the economy, said Rep. Zack Space (Ohio), a sophomore Democrat and top GOP target this year. He said the health care debate is in many ways dividing this country and preventing us from fully focusing on our economy and getting our feet back under us.
The priorities were clear: jobs, deficit reduction, holding Wall Street firms accountable, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Assistant to the Speaker and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman. Those were clearly the big three. And he sort of asked the question to the American people, do you really want to turn back the clock and adopt the same policies that got us into this economic mess to begin with?
In tone, Democrats praised what they said was a spirited call to arms. Americans want a fighter, I like a fighter, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said. The man inherited some major challenges, hes fighting to try and address them, I think thats what you want to see in a president.
And Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) lauded Obamas personal confidence.
The words resilience and strength and decency appeared over and over again and I thought they were a very good way for him to both
connect us in Congress with the better angels of our nature and reconnect with the American people after this divisive period weve been through, he said.
It wasnt all atta-boys from Democratic lawmakers. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), a leading liberal critic of Obamas economic policies, said the presidents speech came up short for not specifically pledging significant new investments in infrastructure and for calling for new trade agreements. He has thus far been indistinguishable from Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George Bush the first, George Bush the second, on trade policy, DeFazio said. Is he beginning to break? Is he beginning to back away from the free-trade mantra that has failed our country and exported millions of jobs and our manufacturing capability? Its not clear from what he said tonight.
And Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) said the president should have stuck to the economy and jobs instead of wading into issues like gays in the military and immigration.
Those are issues I would have preferred he didnt bring up in this context, he said.
But the call to repeal the dont ask, dont tell law got kudos as well.
Ive talked to 100 military people in the last two years ... and I havent heard one of them who thinks [dont ask, dont tell] is a good idea, Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) said.
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