Obama unveils broad agenda in 2011 State of the Union

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Set to a symbolic tone of civility with Congress sitting together rather than divided by party lines, President Barack Obama still had a calculated message during his second State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Obama had a broad focus on clean energy, education reform, infrastructure improvements and other challenges to Congress and the nation, said Stephen Engel, an assistant professor of political science.

CUTS AND CHANGES

Obama proposed a freeze on annual domestic spending for the next five years, which he said will lead to a $400 billion deficit reduction in the next decade.

He also said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has signed off on cutting tens of billions of dollars in defense spending.

On the surface, these cuts would contradict the goal of investing, but this doesn’t have to be the case, Engel said.

“Instead of slashing the spending, the president outlined the basics of how to spend wisely to achieve certain objectives,” Engel said. “Cut spending in area X and if you do enough of it — then you free up some funds.”

While Obama indicated willingness to tweak the national health care reform bill passed last year, he said he would not allow insurance companies to deny coverage due to pre-existing conditions.

Finally, Obama clamped down on bills with earmarks.

“Both parties in Congress should know this: if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it,” he said.

Julia Azari, an assistant professor of political science, questioned whether the threat was relevant in the grand scheme of costs.

“The definition of what qualifies as an earmark may be subject to some massaging,” Azari said. “Furthermore, the earmark question is really distracting. Earmarks are relatively inexpensive compared to defense and entitlements.”

ENERGIZING THE ECONOMY

In what Obama called this generation’s “Sputnik moment,” he called for investing in new biomedical research, information technology and clean energy technology.

Obama set goals of having one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015 and also having 80 percent of America’s electricity come from clean energy sources (wind, solar, nuclear, clean coal, natural gas) by 2035.

EDUCATING THE MASSES

The president said the Race to the Top competition “should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that is more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.”

Additionally, he challenged young people contemplating their career choice to become teachers.

Following through on education and innovation is where Obama can show some leadership in a competitive world, Azari said.

“Both are essential, and require real commitment to education – social support, support for educators and effort from students,” Azari said.

INFRASTRUCTURE IMPROVEMENTS

Within 25 years, Obama said he wants to see 80 percent of Americans have access to high-speed rail. Also, he said it will be possible for business to issue the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of Americans.

“This isn’t just about a faster Internet and fewer dropped calls,” Obama said. “It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age.”

RESPONSE FROM THE RIGHT

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) delivered the GOP response to Obama’s speech, and provided intelligent criticisms on how to attack the budget deficit, Engel said.

In contrast, Engel said U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was “unintelligible and strategically inept” with her message representing the Tea Party.

McGee Young, an assistant professor of political science, said both the GOP and Tea Party members were caught off guard by some of the things Obama said.

“My sense, watching the responses from Ryan and Bachmann, is that he has his opposition pretty baffled at this point,” he said.

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