By Sam Youngman - 01/26/11 03:16 AM EST
President Obama promised Tuesday night that he will veto any bill that includes earmarks.
Making the second State of the Union address of his presidency, this one following a trouncing of Democrats in November’s elections, Obama sought to cast himself as a political centrist. He called for a five-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending, but avoided specifics about how to control the much greater costs of Social Security, which the left had feared.
Voters deserved to know that special interests weren’t “larding up” legislation, Obama said, adding that “both parties in Congress should know this. If a bill comes to my desk with earmarks in it, I will veto it. I will veto it.”
The promise repeats a pledge Obama made during the campaign but ignored after the Democratic Congress in 2009 sent him legislation laden with $8 billion in earmarks.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) suggested he did not take the pledge seriously. When asked about it in advance of the speech, Reid dismissed it as “pretty talk” that would cede too much authority to a president who has “enough power already.”
Obama called the proposed five-year freeze on non-security spending a “down payment” on the tough decisions to come for a nation with nearly $14.3 trillion in public debt.
He pledged to work with Republicans and Democrats, challenging both parties to join him in cutting spending but attacking the deficit in a way that will not hamstring America’s global competitiveness or harm its most vulnerable citizens.
“New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans,” Obama said. “We will move forward together, or not at all — for the challenges we face are bigger than party and bigger than politics.
“Instead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let’s fix what needs fixing and move forward,” Obama added.
Obama gave his address to a divided Congress, but to an audience that sought an image of unity just weeks after the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in Tucson, Ariz. For a night, Democratic senators sat with their Republican counterparts and conservative GOP House members shared space with liberal Democrats.
The president applauded the decision for members to sit together, but said the real test of bipartisanship will come as Congress tries to tackle big issues like the budget deficit and tax reform.
Obama offered few hard figures for how his proposals to tackle spending would reduce the deficit, but more specifics are expected when the White House rolls out Obama’s budget the week of Feb. 14.
In the Republican response, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) argued the nation is quickly reaching a “tipping point” with its budget deficit from which there will be no comeback.
“We are at a moment where if government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America’s best century will be considered our past century,” Ryan, a rising star in the Republican Party, said.
Republicans won the midterm elections arguing that spending has exploded under an Obama administration that signed into law a $787 billion stimulus bill and massive reforms of healthcare and the financial system. But Obama and the White House pushed back at that message on Tuesday, with the president’s newly minted economic adviser, Gene Sperling, telling reporters Monday that as a percentage of GDP, spending levels would be lower by 2015 than at any point since President Eisenhower was in office.
Obama defended the new healthcare law, which he said would slow rising costs, reduce the deficit and prevent people with pre-existing health problems from being denied insurance. Yet he also offered an olive branch to House Republicans who voted to repeal the law less than a week ago, saying he was willing to look at tort reform legislation that could rein in frivolous lawsuits.
Moments later, Obama made a peace offering to liberals upset by his compromise with Republicans on the Bush tax cuts, which the president agreed to extend just weeks ago. Obama said those who truly care about the deficit should allow the tax breaks for the wealthiest to expire in two years.
Obama sought to tie the various themes of his address into the central premise of making the U.S. more competitive with countries like India and China.
To that end, Obama repeated that he believes the U.S. is facing another “Sputnik moment.”
“We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world,” he said. "We have to make America the best place on earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit, and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future.”
Calling the U.S. “poised for progress,” Obama boasted of the modest economic gains the country has made in the last two years.
“Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back,” Obama said. “Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.”
Obama laid out calls for investments in clean energy, new education initiatives, increased trade, expanded infrastructure and immigration reform.
While most of the speech was on domestic concerns, Obama reaffirmed his commitment to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq this year and begin the transition of security responsibilities in Afghanistan.
Obama hailed the repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law, and called for colleges to allow military recruiters on campus.
Some issues were notable for being left out. Obama did not mention either gun control or peace in the Middle East, and he made only a passing reference to Social Security. Obama said Medicare and Medicaid are the most to blame for the deficit.
The mixed seating put an end to the prolonged standing ovations of the past as members sat and applauded together for the most part. Only in sections like healthcare did Democrats and Republicans stand separately.
This story was updated from an earlier version, and last updated at 10:50 p.m.