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Washington Matters


State of the Union: Obama and GOP Want Compromise, but How Much?

Kenneth R. Bazinet

President Obama jockeys for position ahead of the March 1 deadline that will trigger the start of $1.2 trillion in cuts to domestic and defense programs.



Obama's fourth State of the Union address was one part campaign-style appeal to Congress to reach a deal to avoid massive automatic spending cuts, while the other part was a campaign-style kiss-up to the American middle class. Polls show Obama has the majority of Americans backing his agenda, and he clearly wants to keep that edge.

See Also: Our Economic Outlooks

Partisanship, of course, permeates everything, from Senate confirmation of Obama's cabinet picks to passing aid for states struck by Hurricane Sandy. And fiscal gridlock over what parts of the budget to cut and how best to raise revenue creeps into almost every aspect of government business.

The overriding goal that Obama has set going forward is to have the economy emerge from its doldrums, giving Americans something to be hopeful about. The climbing financial markets are a big boost, but Obama needs to see the number of jobs created each month double, property values surge and incomes increase.

Obama wants a big infrastructure program as the centerpiece of his government-spurred jobs program. The roads, bridges, and tunnels that require fixing would be a boom for builders in many parts of the country. The president will get a transportation bill that will mean some jobs this year, but it's doubtful that the House Republicans will cough up the megabill­­ions of dollars Obama wants for a comprehensive infrastructure program.

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The ambiguous recovery of the U.S. economy so far is not the validation Obama seeks for his two terms in office. The federal debt -- $16.5 trillion and growing -- is a yoke Obama can't shake off. He won't begin to wipe out the federal debt, but he knows he at least needs to show it can begin to decline by the time he gives up the office in January 2017.

"Nothing I’m proposing" Obama insisted, "should increase our deficit by a single dime. It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”

Unfortunately, Obama is noncommittal at this point on entitlement spending, the biggest long-term draw on the federal treasury. He gave no clue about how committed he is to fixing Medicare or Social Security, choosing to keep his negotiating strategy close to the vest. The same goes for where he is willing to cut and what tax holes he expects to be closed in return: near-silence.

Obama will get some give from Republicans on a few key issues.

He will most likely get a pared-down gun control bill that at the least will include universal background checks. There is widespread agreement on that measure, but an assault weapons ban and limits on the size of ammunition magazines won't be part of a new law.

On immigration reform, there is more reason for optimism, particularly in the Senate, where John McCain (R-AZ) has signaled he intends to do some heavy lifting to pass a bill. The House, as has become routine, is a harder read. Few Republicans have stepped up to carry the load in the House of Representatives.

There remains a big split in the House GOP on the issue of how best to deal with immigrants. Speaker John Boehner (OH) may be willing to allow only a bill that can pass to get to the floor. If that scenario were to occur, it makes it much more likely that a watered-down immigration bill will emerge, one resembling a glorified guest worker program rather than anything that offers a fast track to U.S. citizenship.

Obama has his best chance to work in tandem with the Republicans in Congress on foreign policy matters. Keeping a nuclear weapon out of Iranian hands, and isolating North Korea until it curbs its nuclear program and behaves less erratically, are issues of mutual concern to Obama and the GOP.

The drawdown of troops in Afghanistan has bipartisan appeal. Obama will reduce by half the number of U.S. troops there, from the 66,000 men and women currently serving to a 34,000-person force in the next year.

The president hasn't decided yet on the final size of a garrison force after 2014, but expect it to be somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 troops, depending on conditions in the country. The better the Afghan police and military perform, the fewer Americans there will be on the ground in Afghanistan after 2014.

Domestically and abroad, the state of the union is stronger, as Obama proclaimed, but the government remains divided, and this lot in Washington has a record of suffering from self-inflicted wounds. Anything can happen.

The GOP leaders find themselves in the position of having to counter the president's agenda with their own proposals, while trying to hold together the party's often unruly ranks. The Democrats don't have this problem of deep division and are much more unified. The Republicans need to come to terms with the path their party is taking.

Divisions remains in the GOP ranks. Not only did the Republicans offer competing rebuttals to Obama's address -- one the official response and the other a tea party reaction -- but the two men who delivered the separate retorts are both tea party favorites. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida gave an all-inclusive official GOP response, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky provided a more biting rebuttal for the tea party. Both men shared their disdain for government.

"This opportunity, to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life, it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy where people can risk their own money to open a business," Rubio said.

There clearly is a lot of daylight between the two parties.

So the task ahead for Obama, Boehner and the other leading players in Washington was clear before Obama spoke a word at the Speaker's podium in the House of Representatives at the annual address to the Congress: They either find a way to work together to fix problems now or quickly slip into the next election cycle, and little will get done and much time will have been wasted.



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