STATE OF THE UNION: Reactions divided to presidential address

Jan. 30, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

Almost stereotypically, local and national political leaders responded to the president's State of the Union address Tuesday night along party lines.

Lee County Republican Chairman Charles Staley couldn't be reached for comment, but Jim Womack, an outspoken Republican on the Lee County Board of Commissioners, said the speech was "uninspired" and that it didn't offer new ideas to move the country forward.

“If I had to think of one word, that [uninspired] was the one that popped into my head,” he said. “It wasn't even his usual self. He was flat, and he really didn't have anything new to discuss about the state of the economy and the union.”

Congressional Republicans swiftly and sharply rejected President Barack Obama's vow to act on his own if lawmakers won't help him create jobs and narrow the nation's yawning income gap, insisting he'll accomplish little in a divided government without them.

"The authority he has doesn't add up to much for those without opportunity in this economy," House Speaker John Boehner said after Obama's State of the Union address before a packed House chamber and a prime-time television audience.

"The real answer is for Obama to refocus his priorities and work with us on the things that we can achieve together to create jobs and promote greater opportunity," he added.

Obama took credit for several private sector-driven successes, Womack said, adding that it was Obama’s policies that hindered positive economic growth.

“I don't know how he can give doublespeak about the successes in the energy sector when he is preventing, single-handedly, the construction of the Keystone pipeline,” he said. “So, I think, it's a lot of doublespeak to claim the successes of energy when the private sector has done all of that in spite of his policy.”

During his speech, Obama summoned lawmakers to create jobs, overhaul immigration laws, combat climate change and more, and said he would act unilaterally where possible if they won't compromise.

"America does not stand still, and neither will I," the president declared. "So whatever and wherever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do."

The speech was what Lee County Democratic Chairman Ann McCracken said she expected from the State of the Union address.

“He said he was going to talk about cooperation with the legislature, but I don't think he's anticipating he's going to get much cooperation from them,” she said. “So he was laying out some actions he could take to get things moving.”

Obama’s support for women and establishing more opportunities for women were vital, as was his tribute to the Army ranger who was injured in Afghanistan, McCracken said.  It seemed to be a metaphor, she said, for the unwavering American spirit. 

McCracken watched Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers make the Republicans' official response shortly after Obama’s speech, but said she didn't view Sen. Mike Lee’s response for the Tea Party or Sen. Rand Paul’s response for the Libertarian Party.

“I find it so interesting that they have to have three,” McCracken said. “… It shows just how fractured the Republican Party is and how they can't seem to get anything done.”

Womack disagreed.

“We are no more fractured than the Democratic Party,” he said. “There are many viewpoints, and it's good to hear those points. We're not an automaton, marching to the same drummer. There are Libertarian, conservative and moderate view points that need to be heard.”

Lee’s response should have received more media attention, Womack said, because it offered more initiatives and ideas to foster the economy than either of the two primary speeches.

The State of the Union address came at the beginning of the sixth year in Obama's presidency and was replete with all the political pageantry that Washington can muster. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opened her arms wide to give a grinning Obama a huge hug as he walked past her on the way to the speaker's rostrum.

The galleries ringing the floor were crowded with guests, also part of the traditional setting. The evening's longest — and most bipartisan — applause went to one of them. Army Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, grievously injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, acknowledged the cheers from his seat next to first lady Michelle Obama.

By contrast, Obama's mention of the health care law that bears his name brought cheers from Democrats and silence from Republicans, who have spent the past three years trying to repeal a program they loathe.

He said he didn't expect Republicans to change their minds but challenged them to offer improvements. "If you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people and increase choice — tell America what you'd do differently. Let's see if the numbers add up.

"But let's not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that's already helping millions of Americans."

Republicans have yet to offer a comprehensive health care alternative, and the remarks appeared to be an attempt by the president to frame the issue to his party's advantage in the long campaign ahead for control of Congress.

Similarly, Obama's heavy emphasis on income disparity underscored the importance pocketbook issues will have in Congress this year and in the election in November.

"Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise," he said.

Obama announced before the speech that he would soon sign an order raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour for federal contractors. He urged Congress to make it the law of the land — even though Republicans had already rejected the proposal as a threat to those at the bottom of the wage ladder.

Among the president's other executive initiatives is a plan to help workers whose employers don't offer retirement savings plans. The program would allow first-time savers to start building up savings in Treasury bonds that eventually could be converted into traditional IRAs.

The president also announced new commitments from companies to consider hiring the long-term unemployed; the creation of four more "manufacturing hubs" where universities and businesses would work together to develop and train workers; new incentives to encourage truckers to switch from dirtier fuels to natural gas or other alternatives; and a proposed tax credit to promote the adoption of cars that can run on cleaner fuels, such as hydrogen, natural gas or biofuels.

In a speech that ran slightly more than an hour, Obama said he would streamline the approval process for key transportation projects — but made no mention of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that Republicans want built.

In one area where bipartisanship is most likely, he urged enactment of legislation to promote trade.

Much of the balance of the president's agenda has run aground on partisanship before, and will be hard to accomplish in an election year.

"Let's get immigration done this year," he said, although House Republicans have already ruled out his call to create a path to citizenship for millions of adults living in the country illegally.

Even tougher is climate change, an area where the president said the scientific debate is settled, but some Republicans deny that global warming is caused by humans.