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Obama: Challenges are ‘bigger than party’


WASHINGTON — Confronting the new reality of divided government, President Barack Obama implored lawmakers of both parties Tuesday night to rally behind his vision for creating jobs for an anxious nation, declaring: "We will move forward together, or not at all."

Obama was making his State of the Union address to a Congress sobered by the recent shootings in Arizona and talking about a new tone of political civility. A number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers planned to sit together rather than on clearly marked sides of the House chamber as usual.

In excerpts of his State of the Union address, released in advance by the White House, the president cast the challenges facing the United States as bigger than either party. He said the nation is facing a new "Sputnik" moment, and he urged efforts to create a wave of innovation to create jobs and a vibrant economic future, just as the nation vigorously responded to the Soviets beating the U.S. into space a half century ago.

His message came as Obama himself was adjusting his agenda to the shifting power dynamic in Washington, with voters having given Republicans control of the House and a stronger voice in the Senate and as the 2012 presidential campaign was ready to start.

For a second straight year, Obama’s speech was focusing overwhelmingly on the nation’s still-fragile economy while leaving other domestic and foreign affairs topics to compete for briefer mentions. With less than 40 percent of Americans confident the nation is moving in the right direction, Obama was using his biggest stage to show he has ideas for speeding up a sluggish recovery.

"At stake right now is not who wins the next election. After all, we just had an election," the president said. "At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country or somewhere else."

He was delivering his speech to a television audience in the tens of millions and, in front of him, the members of the new-look Congress. Over his shoulder would be a reminder of the shift in power on Capitol Hill: new Republican House Speaker John Boehner.

The setting was both more sober and emotional than in many past years.

One seat was to remain empty in honor of Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who is recovering from the Jan. 8 assassination attempt against her that left six people dead. Many in both parties were to wear black-and-white lapel pins, signifying the deaths in Tucson and the hopes of the survivors. Family members of some victims were to sit with first lady Michelle Obama.

In an attempt at unity following the attack, some Democratic and Republican lawmakers planned to sit together. The focus on a new tone comes a year after Obama’s rebuke of a Supreme Court decision in his State of the Union speech led Justice Samuel Alito to mouth back from the audience, "Not true."

Six justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, were to attend Tuesday night. Alito was in Hawaii this week, and Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia were not attending.

Republicans chose Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to deliver the televised response to Obama’s address. He was planning to promote budget cuts as essential to responsible governing, speaking from the hearing room of the House Budget Committee, which he now chairs.

Obama’s address was built around promoting concentrated spending in areas such as education, research and transportation and promising reductions in the nation’s staggering debt and reforms of government at a time when voters are tired of bailouts and regulation.

Halfway through his term, Obama stepped into this moment on the upswing, with a series of recent legislative wins in his pocket and praise from all corners for the way he responded to the shooting rampage in Arizona.

But the political reality is that he must now find a way to lead a divided government for the first time, with more than half of all Americans disapproving of the way he is handling the economy — the topic dominating both his speech and the early 2012 re-election campaign.

In the speech, Obama was to call for a five-year freeze on all discretionary government spending outside of national security, the White House said. That would be almost identical to the freeze Obama called for in his address to the nation last year at this time, and ultimately it may have little effect, as Congress decides the budget on its own terms.

Indeed, the Republican-dominated House voted on Tuesday to return most domestic spending to 2008, pre-recession levels. The 256-165 vote came on a symbolic measure that put GOP lawmakers on record in favor of cutting $100 billion from Obama’s budget for the current year.

Public concern over government spending was a defining force in the 2010 midterm elections, and it is expected to remain so as Obama’s re-election drive begins.

The president was to give nods to American interests around the globe, with a traditional foreign policy section covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorism threats and diplomacy. But his primary goal was for those watching to emerge with more confidence about the economy of the country and more clarity about his vision for it.

Obama’s budget freeze would not touch money related to national security or the politically popular but costly entitlement programs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. He was also putting his weight behind a five-year plan developed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to limit planned Pentagon budget increases by $78 billion over five years.

The contrast between the two parties’ visions remains stark, and questions about where to cut spending, and by how much, will drive much of the debate for the rest of 2011.

Obama is trying to emphasize economic priorities that can draw both public appeal and enough Republican consideration for at least serious debate. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested Tuesday that Obama has a long road ahead as he tries to court GOP support.

"Voters sent a clear message in November. When it comes to jobs and the economy, the administration’s policies have done far more damage than good," McConnell said on the Senate floor.


Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Julie Pace and Jeannine Aversa contributed to this report.

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