Beyond the State of the Union, Battles Loom

Washington Matters

Beyond the State of the Union, Battles Loom

Readying a re-election campaign, the president will largely stay above the fray.

President Obama scored big thematic points in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, but the glamour and pomp will soon give way to renewed political division.

The spending and policy battles ahead will be more defining in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election than anything said last night. Still, the address is important, as a marker in time.

Obama highlighted ambitious goals for job creation, investment infrastructure, education, basic science research, tax code reform, export promotion, expanded small business development and being arm-in-arm with Republicans on deficit reduction. All were applauded, but all were absent details, as wish lists often are in these annual speeches.

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The divide was made clear moments after the president left the chamber and lawmakers spilled into the halls to share responses that were nearly as rehearsed as the president’s remarks.


“Fine speech. We all agree in American exceptionalism,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY. “Now what? Will he be with us on deficit cutting? Will he be exceptional there? There’s trouble ahead in real terms, not in the lofty terms of national pride we all agree on.”

Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-TN, a freshman backed by the Tea Party and insisting on large spending cuts this year, wasn’t swayed either. “The president’s proposed freeze on domestic spending, which has already run wild since he took the oath, won’t do it. We’re united tonight on being civil, yes. We’re divided tomorrow on the course of the country and the public dollar,” he said.

Even Democrats, while embracing the president’s words, see trouble on the horizon.

“I don’t see an easy budget year ahead,” said Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, who chairs the Budget Committee. “Generalities are easy. Specifics can be killers. There’ll be stalemate and no budget if the Republican idea is to cut $100 billion right away in domestic [spending] and if they don’t bend. It would derail the recovery. They know it. They won’t say it. I just did.”


For an hour in the House chamber, though, there was general agreement in tone and adherence to civility, underscored when Obama recognized the empty seat of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-AZ, who is recovering from an assassination attempt earlier this month in Tucson. But even in that moment, Obama pointed to the difficult road ahead. “What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we work together tomorrow.”

Obama soon turned to jobs and the economy, with a nod to the verdict delivered by voters last November. “With their votes, they’ve determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all -- for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.”

Obama was in a comfortable position addressing deficit reduction. He knows the battle over the dollars will be fought in Congress, not the White House.

Look for disunity and division on many spending fronts, not only between Democrats who rule the Senate and Republicans who control the House, but within the GOP caucus as lawmakers try to determine the best way to move forward.


The president’s budget proposal for fiscal 2012, which starts Oct. 1, will be one area of contention. By releasing it a few weeks later than usual, the week of Feb. 14, the White House will have some extra time to trumpet the general themes of Obama’s address without having to lay out specifics. That, says budget scholar Stan Collender, “will make it far tougher for the GOP to criticize what the president talks about and push them to find creative ways of changing the discussion back to the Republican agenda.”

Raising the federal debt limit is a second flash point. That decision will come in late March or April -- not enough time for Republicans to agree on specific spending cuts to tie to a debt level increase that is necessary to keep trust in the dollar, Treasury bonds and U.S. commitments. The GOP will balk and will insist on a nonbinding commitment to cut tens of billions of dollars in the next budget. But in the end, enough Republicans will support the move.

Extending current federal government funding is a third stumbling block. The debate will spill out in March, when federal spending for all agencies must be reauthorized for the rest of this fiscal year. And a federal budget resolution is another. An agreement between parties whose proposals will be billions and billions of dollars apart is unlikely.

While all of these fights play out on the floors of the House and Senate, Obama will quietly prepare to campaign for a second term in the White House with one comforting thought in mind: Americans care far more about the economy and jobs than about Washington and congressional bickering.

Indeed, he’s banking on it.