President's supporters, opponents chime in on what's been done, what needs to be done
January 13, 2016 12:00 AM
Evan Vucci - Pool/Getty Images
President Barack Obama delivers his final State of the Union address Tuesday before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill.
By Tracie Mauriello / Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Even an empty chair in the U.S. House chamber provoked equal shares of condemnation and commendation in the partisan response to the State of the Union address.
The vacant chair was meant to symbolize victims of gun violence. It wasn’t the first time Mr. Obama spoke to an empty chair in a State of the Union address. In his 2011 speech, he pointed out U.S. Rep. Gabby Gifford’s seat, left empty as the Arizona Democrat recovered from critical injuries from a mass shooting in Tucson.
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said that seat should have been filled by someone whose life was turned around by mental health treatment.
“Who I’d like to see in that seat it someone who got the care they needed, whose life was turned around,” said Mr. Murphy, a clinical psychologist and Congress’s most vocal proponent of fixing the mental health system as a way of addressing gun violence.
Last week’s executive order includes sinking $500,000 more into mental health services, but Mr. Murphy remains concerned that the money would be wasted on ineffective programs. He is calling for sweeping reforms of the mental health system.
White House aides said the speech was intentionally light on policy because the president wanted to look at the country’s long term future rather than at the steps to get there. Those he is expected to lay out in more detail in the coming days as he and his cabinet travel the country.
Some Western Pennsylvania Republicans interpreted that approach as a sign that the president is giving up the fight as his tenure winds down.
“It’s clear to me that this is a president who knows his time is very limited,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler. “Today’s speech was very uninspiring. Even Democrats didn’t seem inspired by it.
Mr. Murphy said the speech lacked substance.
“He didn’t have a plan to move us forward, and his comments that things are moving well is not what I hear from a lot of families,” he said as he left the House chamber late Tuesday. “On balance, it was disappointing.”
Other Republicans also were puzzled by Mr. Obama’s approach to the speech. Most presidents use such addresses to tout their legacies or advance specific policies.
“I don’t know what his strategy is but I didn’t hear any policies,” said U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. “The president did not lay out an agenda he wants to pursue to help those people who are struggling to get out of poverty or people who are middle-income workers who are struggling to have a life or have some economic security.”
U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, one of the president’s harshest critics, said he did hear some policy proposals. He even supports some of them, including efforts to address drug addiction, to reform the criminal justice system and to fund cancer research.
His guest at the speech was Carnegie Mellon University political scientist Kiron Skinner.
“It was amazing to watch democracy in action,” she said after the speech. “I’m a Republican who cares more about the American process than political parties, and I admire and respect the president. I disagree with some of his policies but he has a fundamental impact on our political system.”
Democrats praised the sweeping speech and its picture of the future.
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle said the speech was a refreshing change from Republican presidential candidates’ “gloom-and-doom” rhetoric.
“They’re trying to make the American people think that the country is in terrible condition. We have challenges; there’s no doubt about that, but overall things are positive.” Mr. Doyle said.
Still, he said, Mr. Obama has work to do.
The middle class hasn’t recovered enough from the recession, and they need more help, Mr. Doyle said.
“We’ve seen [gross domestic product] go up, but working class families haven’t really risen and come out of this yet. Their wages haven’t been going up. They’re stagnating,” he said.
But Mr. Doyle doesn’t blame the president.
“He’s done as much as he could with a Congress that — at just about every turn — tried to stop him from doing anything,” he said. “We’re strongest when we think positively and we work together and push in one direction. That’s what the president stressed.”
Where Mr. Obama fell short ticking off items on his legacy check list, other Democrats filled in.
Speaking pre-emptively on the Senate floor Monday, Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, heaped on praise ahead of the high-profile speech, crediting Mr. Obama with rebuilding the economy, capturing Osama bin Ladin, creating jobs, mitigating climate change by establishing emissions standards.
“We will do everything in our power as Democrats to build on the strong legacy that President Obama has established, and we will continue fighting to strengthen the Middle Class and working families,” Mr. Reid said Monday.
U. S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who has been a supporter since he campaigned for Mr. Obama during the 2008 primary, credited the president with improving the economy, creating jobs and strengthening the middle class.
“Sometimes all we do is spend a lot of time in Washington debating what isn’t working, what’s bad news. We need to emphasize good news,” he said. “I think it’s important the he reviews the last seven years … but we still have a lot of time left in this presidency. We need to get things done that haven’t been done.”
Mr. Toomey is looking for new direction, although he agreed that Congress and the president have had some achievements, such as reauthorizing defense spending, reforming education policy, funding transportation and suspending an unpopular tax on medical devices.
“These are all things we got done last year alone, and there’s a lot more that we can do this year but we need a new agenda, an agenda … that will elevate the standard of living we’ve had for years,” he said.
That should include reducing spending, fixing the tax code, strengthening intelligence capabilities and aggressively fighting terrorism, Mr. Toomey said.
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Blair, also said Mr. Obama’s address fell short on foreign policy.
“He should have finally laid out a plan for the American people that would not simply contain or slow ISIS but ensure that this evil is wiped off the face of the earth,” Mr. Shuster said. “Instead of using this address as a platform to criticize conservatives because of our continued fight against his failed policies like Obamacare, he should have focused on uniting our nation in a time when it needs leadership.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, seen as a potential Republican vice presidential candidate, delivered the official Republican response. In it she said that the president’s record “has often fallen far short of his soaring words.”
Calling herself “the proud daughter of Indian immigrants who reminded my brothers, my sister and me every day how blessed we were to live in this country” she said that during anxious times, “it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country."
She pledged: “If we held the White House, taxes would be lower for working families, and we’d put the brakes on runaway spending and debt...We would make international agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran, not the other way around. And rather than just thanking our brave men and women in uniform, we would actually strengthen our military, so both our friends and our enemies would know that America seeks peace, but when we fight wars we win them.”
She said, “We have big decisions to make. Our country is being tested. But we’ve been tested in the past, and our people have always risen to the challenge. We have all the guidance we need to be safe and successful. Our forefathers paved the way for us. Let’s take their values, and their strengths, and rededicate ourselves to doing whatever it takes to keep America the greatest country in the history of man.”
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.
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