A year after he directly took on the Supreme Court in a State of the Union address, President Obama finds himself Tuesday facing the tricky task of leading a post-Tucson push for civility, while trying to play some offense.
Mr. Obama also will have to balance his desire to boost spending on education and infrastructure with calls to rein in sky-high deficits — a challenge that has only become more urgent as a tea party-inspired GOP is eager for cuts.
It’s a tougher test than two weeks ago, when the president delivered a widely praised speech appealing for unity at a prayer service after the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., which left six dead and injured more than a dozen, including Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
In a symbolic move, many Democrats and Republicans have pledged to abandon traditional partisan seating arrangements in favor of sitting side by side. First lady Michelle Obama invited the intern credited with saving Mrs. Giffords’ life and the family of a 9-year-old girl who was killed in the shooting to be guests of honor.
Given the delicate atmosphere — as well his need now to have Republican cooperation to advance his agenda — strategists said Mr. Obama won’t make the same type of pointed rebuke he levied against the Supreme Court last year, when he bluntly criticized them on a campaign finance ruling. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who was in the audience, could be seen shaking his head at the comment.
“He’s not going to call out Republicans by name in this speech,” Republican strategist Michael McKenna said. “He’s going to count on the media to make the distinction for him that the president is in favor of economic growth and reducing government expenditures in a modest, measured way, unlike Republicans who are just wild-eyed budget cutters.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Monday signaled that Mr. Obama will avoid some of the thorniest questions, saying that the White House won’t offer specific spending proposals until it releases its budget next month.
Mr. Obama will spend most of his time “talking about the challenges that we’ve faced, both in the short term, in terms of doing whatever we can to help create jobs; in the medium and long term, to continue working on issues like competitiveness and innovation; and ensuring that in the medium and the long term, we get our fiscal house in order,” Mr. Gibbs said.
But Mr. McKenna said if the president repeats his calls for a civil political discourse, it will be “an overt attempt to suppress dissent.”
“These guys are the barest-knuckle brawlers to sit in the White House since the Nixon administration,” he said. “To take a lecture from them on civility … it’s just comical.”
Even as Mr. Obama focuses on civility, he has nevertheless hinted at impending fights over funding priorities, and he’s likely to use the State of the Union to set out broad markers.
Although both parties have identified spending as a possible area of bipartisan cooperation, it’s shaping up to be the marquee clash in Congress. Mr. Obama and his allies want more federal dollars spent on boosting U.S. competitiveness while a newly emboldened GOP says the November elections - when the party picked up dozens of new seats and control of the House - are proof the public wants the government to curb spending.
In the speech, Mr. Obama is expected to call for federal “investments” in education, transportation and technological innovation to spur competitiveness and job growth as he urges lawmakers to join him in tackling the deficit. It’s a difficult needle to thread, highlighted by Mr. Obama’s avoidance in taking a clear position on the recommendations by his own bipartisan deficit commission two months after it issued a report calling for a mixture of tax increases and spending reductions, including entitlement programs.
Cutting spending is the No. 1 issue for Republicans, who have chosen House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, a fiscal hawk who has called for an overhaul of the nation’s entitlement system, to rebut Mr. Obama’s address. For their part, Democrats have pounced on the choice as evidence that Republicans favor radical cuts that could imperil the economic recovery as the nation struggles to bounce back from a gripping recession.
“The Republicans have an enormous burden to prove that cutting spending can actually create growth and prosperity,” said Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of NDN, a Democratic think tank. “I think the president is going to argue that the challenges are big and we need big solutions.”