Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s first speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, painted Democrats as “irresponsible” for increasing government spending during a time of economic turmoil.
“To solve our current problems, Washington must lead. But the way to lead is not to raise taxes and put more money and power in hands of Washington politicians,” Mr. Jindal said during his televised rebuttal. “The way to lead is by empowering you - the American people.”
“The strength of America is not found in our government,” he added. “It is found in the compassionate hearts and enterprising spirit of our citizens.”
The Republican Party, desperate for a charismatic leader to help lift it from the political wilderness, picked Mr. Jindal, a young political prodigy who has been frequently mentioned as a potential candidate for the 2012 presidential election.
• To read the text of the GOP response, click here.
In an inspirational tone reminiscent of the president’s speech, Mr. Jindal tried to assure Americans - and potential voters - that the country has the ability to overcome its current troubles.
“Our troubles are real, to be sure. But don’t let anyone tell you that we cannot recover, or that America’s best days are behind her, he said. “The American spirit has triumphed over almost every form of adversity known to man, and the American spirit will triumph again.”
Yet the governor said his party is also to blame for leading the country down a wrong path, saying that Republicans didn’t deliver on their campaign promises to cut pork-barrel projects and excessive spending and that American voters “rightly” lost trust in them in recent years.
“Our party got away from its principles. You elected Republicans to champion limited government, fiscal discipline and personal responsibility. Instead, Republicans went along with earmarks and big government spending in Washington,” Mr. Jindal said Tuesday night.
But the governor said his party is determined to regain that trust.
“We will do so by standing up for the principles that we share, the principles you elected us to fight for, the principles that built this into the greatest, most prosperous country on earth,” he said.
Mr. Jindal has had a meteoric political ascension - he was elected governor in 2007 at age 36 after serving less than two terms in the U.S. House, becoming the first Indian-American governor in U.S. history and the first nonwhite governor of Louisiana since Reconstruction.
“Governor Jindal is a rising star and is a part of a new generation of leadership within the Republican Party,” said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
He was first elected to the U.S. House in 2004 at the age of 33. He was immediately elected class president - a presage of his political aspirations as well as his influence among colleagues. He was re-elected two years later with 88 percent of the vote.
While in Congress he became a darling of conservatives. He earned a 100 percent pro-life voting record, opposed embryonic stem-cell research and voted to make the Patriot Act permanent.
“It’s a great honor to be picked to give the response,” said James Pinkerton of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington public policy think tank. “It used to be the minority or majority party leader in Congress - (Sen. Robert) Byrd or (former House Speaker Jim) Wright or people like that - would give the response.”
Before serving in elected office, Mr. Jindal was appointed by then-Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster, a fellow Republican, in 1996 to lead the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals. He won praise for steering the state’s indigent health-care plan from bankruptcy to a budget surplus in three years.
In 2001 former President George W. Bush nominated him to be assistant secretary of health and human services for planning and evaluation, serving as the chief policy adviser to the HHS secretary.
Mr. Jindal’s speech Tuesday may be the most important of his young political career, helping to introduce himself to voters beyond his home state.
“Four years ago, nobody heard of Barack Obama, and then he gave his speech in Boston at the (2004) Democratic National Convention, and look where he is now.” Mr. Pinkerton said. “Not to play up the expectations game here, but Obama’s speech put him on the map. And (Mr. Jindal) certainly has a compelling story.”
Mr. Jindal isn’t shy about butting heads with Democrats or to make waves politically. Last week he announced he would refuse part of his state’s share of the $787 billion stimulus bill, saying Louisiana would not participate in a program aimed at expanding state unemployment insurance coverage.
He said accepting the money would have required changes in state law on eligibility for unemployment benefits and, after federal money runs out in three years, would have led to a $12 million increase in taxes on his state’s businesses to keep funding the benefit.
“Increasing taxes on our Louisiana businesses is certainly not a way to stimulate our economy. It would be the exact wrong thing we could do to encourage further growth and job creation,” Mr. Jindal said last week, although the Louisiana legislature could override his decision.
Democratic leaders have blasted Mr. Jindal for his position, accusing him of playing politics at the expense of his constituents and calling his stance hypocritical.
“It seems to me like Governor Jindal is bluffing,” said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, on Tuesday. “The incentives in the economic recovery package to help states cover more unemployed workers will not cause states to increase taxes.”
Mr. Clyburn added that “funding to provide unemployment assistance and save or create 3.5 million jobs nationwide shouldn’t be hamstrung by a governor’s political ideologies or presidential aspirations.”