Continued from page 1

Even before Mr. Obama spoke, many Republican lawmakers were openly skeptical that the economy will improve under his stewardship, given the record of the past four years. Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, told party colleagues in a memo that Mr. Obama’s economic policies have failed.

“More people are living in poverty, wages are flat, millions have completely exited the labor force, and fraud and abuse remain rampant,” Mr. Sessions said.

Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and chairmanof the House Education and Workforce Committee, said after the speech that Mr. Obama had “outlined a case for more big government.”

“Instead of focusing on the ingenuity and greatness of the American people, the president repeated the same broken promises that have kept unemployment hovering around 8 percent and hampered economic growth,” Mr. Kline said.

Not all the Republican reaction was negative — Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who lost the presidency to Mr. Obama in 2008, said he thought the president’s speech was “great.”

Outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu was chosen as the “designated successor” — the person in the Cabinet who does not attend the State of the Union address so that, in the event a catastrophe stuck the Capitol and government officials were incapacitated, he could take temporary control.

The challenges facing Mr. Obama were set long before he walked triumphantly into the packed House chamber. The president is locked in a contentious battle with congressional Republicans over deficit reduction and spending, with mandatory “sequesters” due to take effect March 1.

The sequester, set in place by the 2011 debt deal, will require an $85 billion funding cut this year, with much of it coming out of the military and the rest from domestic discretionary spending.

There’s an urgency to the deadline, with the prospect of across-the-board cuts hurting the economy, as it did when the economy shrank in the fourth quarter of 2012. But the president is again facing a deeply divided Congress that has rejected consistently his job-growth proposals as too costly and misguided.

Most Democrats and Republicans want to cancel part or all of the defense cuts, but they disagree on how to do that. Mr. Obama wants to raise taxes, while Republicans say the Jan. 1 tax deal already raised revenue. The Republicans prefer to cut entitlement spending to preserve the military.

“The president already got the tax increases he wanted on January 1,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, prior to the president’s speech. “We’re done with the tax part of the equation. Republicans have been very clear about the fact that we’d rather enact smarter spending cuts. But Washington Democrats so far have failed to put forward a serious proposal of their own.”

Social initiatives took up a healthy portion of Mr. Obama’s agenda. On voting rights, the president proposed a nonpartisan commission led by two attorneys who worked on his and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns — Democrat Bob Bauer and Republican Ben Ginsberg — to investigate problems with election-day voting.

“When any Americans — no matter where they live or what their party — are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals,” Mr. Obama said. “We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy.”

Rep. Candice Miller, Michigan Republican and chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, reacted negatively to the proposal, saying voting rights is a “state issue.”

“I do not support the president’s proposal to appoint yet another national commission to study solutions to the problem of long lines at polling places that seems to be confined to very few states,” she said. “There is not a Washington one-size-fits-all solution that will solve Florida’s, or any other state’s, problems. I also am completely opposed to such a commission putting forward mandates to be imposed on state’s like Michigan that would disrupt our already well-run system of elections.”

Story Continues →