State of the Union 2011: Sidestepped Issues

Photo Courtesy - Mark Wilson/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday touched on innovation, education, security and taming the budget deficit through less spending. But there were few details about exactly how he would cut the persistently high national unemployment rate.

Mindful of the long road of negotiations ahead with a Republican-controlled House, the president steered clear of placing a figure on military spending, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

"He could have acknowledged the seriousness of the employment situation, including the unemployment rate," said Doug Roberts, chief investment strategist of Channel Capital Research.

Still, observers say the annual address to Congress is more about setting the tone than filling in all the details.

"The speech provides the president an opportunity to set the tone for a less-polarized Washington, one in which there are prospects of Democrats and Republicans working together to address the nation's problems," said Shanto Iyengar, professor of political science at Stanford University.

While the president did not mention new jobs programs, he emphasized the South Korea trade agreement that will lead to jobs and the importance of investing in education. One specific proposal is a tax credit of $10,000 for four years of college.

Roberts pointed out that Obama avoided talking about the nation's mortgage and foreclosure crisis, currency manipulation disputes with China and international banking stability.

"There was minimal focus on deterioration in the economy, trying to give the appearance of a strong recovery," Roberts said.

The "biggest takeaway for investors" from the speech, according to Anthony Valeri, senior vice president of LPL Research, was a possible decrease in the corporate tax rate. Though he said investors will have to wait and see additional details and "concrete action." 

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Foreign Policy Fades From Focus in State of the Union

Photo Courtesy - ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- During Tuesday night's State of the Union address, President Obama spent just 13 percent of his time discussing foreign policy, less than his recent predecessors and the lowest percentage since the Sept. 11 attacks.

While foreign policy is rarely the focus of a president's State of the Union address, this year's speech continued a trend during Obama's presidency of not using the primetime platform to discuss matters overseas.

In his two previous January addresses to Congress, President Obama only spent 11 percent of his time on foreign policy in 2010 and 10 percent in 2009, calculated as the percentage of words devoted to events abroad, defense, or international trade.  In those speeches, he set aside the bulk of his time to discussing how he planned to get the United States out of the recession and stimulate job growth.

The lack of attention during the major annual speech is not for a lack of concerns abroad, including two festering wars, unrest in Arab capitals, stalled Mideast peace talks, and a defiant Iran and North Korea who seek to expand their nuclear programs.

President Obama's focus on foreign policy during the annual address is way down from that of his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, who regularly used nearly half of his remarks to discuss foreign policy, namely his administration’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks and regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Obama: Troops Will Begin Coming Home from Afghanistan in July 2011

Photo Courtesy - The White House/ Chuck Kennedy(WASHINGTON) -- In his State of the Union address, President Obama reiterated his promise to begin a troops drawdown from Afghanistan this July.

“This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead.  And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home,” he said Tuesday night to loud applause.

The president also praised U.S. troops and civilians for reclaiming Taliban strongholds and training Afghan Security Forces, and claimed that “fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency,” and that al Qaeda’s safe-havens in Pakistan “are shrinking.”

“We have sent a message from the Afghan border to the Arabian Peninsula to all parts of the globe: we will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you,” he said.

However, at the same time he warned that there would be “tough fighting ahead” for troops and civilians in Afghanistan, and that the Afghan government would need to “deliver better governance.”

“But we are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them,” he said.

President Obama devoted most of his State of the Union address to jobs, the economy, and rebuilding the country’s infrastructure.  Mention of Afghanistan came approximately 48 minutes into his speech.

The president also restated the mission in Afghanistan: “Our purpose is clear -- by preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny al Qaeda the safe haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11.”

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Reps. Paul Ryan, Michele Bachmann Give Respective SOTU Responses 

Photo Courtesy - ABC News Radio (WASHINGTON) -- Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., the Republican designated to deliver the party's official rebuttal to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address used his response to call for slashing spending, reducing the national debt and promoting job creation.

“Americans are skeptical of both political parties, and that skepticism is justified -- especially when it comes to spending," Ryan said. "So hold all of us accountable. In this very room, the House will produce, debate, and advance a budget.  Last year -- in an unprecedented failure -- Congress chose not to pass, or even propose a budget. The spending spree continued unchecked."

Ryan's remarks sounded themes that were at the core of the GOP's midterm election strategy last year -- a strategy that led to sweeping victories in the November elections.

Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, told Americans, "we owe you a better choice and a different vision."

"Our forthcoming budget is our obligation to you -- to show you how we intend to do things differently," he said, "how we will cut spending to get the debt down … help create jobs and prosperity … and reform government programs.”

Though Ryan's remarks constituted the official GOP response to the president's speech, it was not the only one that got attention. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., will delivered a Tea Party response in conjunction with the group, Tea Party Express.

Her comments touched on similar themes.

“After the $700 billion bailout, the trillion-dollar stimulus, and the massive budget bill with over 9,000 earmarks that the President signed, many of you implored Washington to please stop spending money we don’t have," Bachmann said. “But, instead of cutting, we saw an unprecedented explosion of government spending and debt at President Obama’s direction -- unlike anything we have seen in the history of our country.”

The congresswoman emphasized earlier this week that her words were "not meant to be in competition" with Rep. Ryan's comments.

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SOTU 2011: President Calls for Bipartisanship on Jobs, Growth

Photo Courtesy - ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- In his first address to a divided Congress, President Obama implored both parties to work together to confront the nation's challenges and outlined a broad strategy for keeping America competitive and stimulating economic growth.

The president spoke in front of an emboldened Republican Party and new House Republican majority that is deeply skeptical of his proposals for ways to boost the economy, create jobs and cut spending.

With that new reality on Capitol Hill, Obama emphasized bipartisanship and ways he and his fellow Democrats could work with Republicans, including a ban on earmarks and a spending freeze on parts of the budget that he said would save approximately $400 billion over five years.

"New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans," the president said. "We will move forward together, or not at all -- for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics."

The president began on a sober note, referring to the absence of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who is in a Houston hospital, recovering from gunshot wounds suffered in the shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona earlier this month. Arizona's congressional delegation honored their colleague by leaving a seat vacant for her.

There was much made before the speech about the seating arrangements -- Democrats pairing off with Republicans in a gesture of bipartisanship and cooperation in the wake of the Tucson shooting.

Obama said the true test of bipartisanship is not where lawmakers sit, "but whether we can work together tomorrow."

The president struck an optimistic tone on the economy.

"We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again," he said.

As expected, Obama's address was not a laundry list of new policy proposals. In fact it was largely a narrative about the way forward, fitting the theme of "Winning the Future."

The president outlined five key areas where he said the United States needs to move forward and Washington needs to make significant and immediate strides: innovation, education, infrastructure, tackling the national debt and government reform.

Continuing a tradition that began under Ronald Reagan, the White House invited special guests to sit with first lady Michelle Obama in her box in the House Gallery on Tuesday night.

Some notable attendees included Daniel Hernandez, the intern credited with saving Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' life when the Arizona Democrat was shot in Tucson earlier this month; the family of Christina Taylor Green, who was killed in that shooting; Giffords' surgeon, Dr. Peter Rhee; and Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, who was recently awarded a Medal of Honor for his service in Afghanistan in 2007.

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SOTU 2011: Lawmakers Cross Aisle, Sit Together, Make History

Photo Courtesy - ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- Members of Congress have sat divided by party at State of the Union addresses for the past 100 years. But Tuesday night, dozens of lawmakers cast history and tradition aside with a mixed-seating arrangement meant to symbolize a renewed commitment to civility and bipartisanship.

Democrats crossed the aisle to stake out positions in Republican territory on the right side of the House chamber, while some Republicans ventured for seats among Democrats on the left. The mixed crowd of blue and red ties and pantsuits created an unprecedented scene from wall to wall.

The integrated seating plan, first proposed by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., following the Tucson shooting, drew at least 59 formal sponsors on a letter laying out the idea and yielded an array of surprising bipartisan seating partners.

Udall linked with conservative South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, while liberal Minnesota Sen. Al Franken joined conservative Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

Other surprising pairings included conservative Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and liberal New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who had vehemently sparred over a bill to provide aid to 9/11 first responders and the Democrats' health care overhaul package passed last year.

"I think if Coburn and Schumer can sit next to each other, then probably just about everybody can," Schumer said Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi arrived with Maryland Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, after she had to gently decline a request by Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor to be his date. Cantor later paired with a fellow Virginian, Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott.

The mixed-seating plan created a prom-like atmosphere on Capitol Hill ahead of the speech, with members courting colleagues from across the aisle and asking them on "dates."

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Reid Reiterates Earmarks Defense in Face of Obama's Proposed Ban

Photo Courtesy - Reid dot Senate dot gov(WASHINGTON) -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid Tuesday was asked if he might change his stance on pork now that President Obama is going to propose an earmark ban during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.

Reid’s answer was pretty clear: Nope.

“I think this is an issue that any president would like to have, that takes power away from the legislative branch of government and I don’t think that’s helpful. I think it’s a lot of pretty talk and it’s only giving the president more power. He’s got enough power already,” Reid told reporters on Capitol Hill after a Democratic caucus meeting.

Reid’s comments Tuesday echo his statement last month, when he gave a passionate defense of pork on Dec. 16, hitting out at the president and Republicans alike.

“I am convinced that I do not want to give up more power to the White House, whether it's George Bush or Barack Obama,” Reid said last month. “I'm going to fight as hard as I can against President Obama on these earmarks, and my Republican colleagues who hate to vote for them but love to get them.

“I can’t accept the fact that people are saying, ‘Why should we vote to accept Congressionally-directed spending?’ That’s our job. That’s what we’re supposed to do,” he said.

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Hero Intern Daniel Hernandez: ‘Call to Action for Public Service’

Photo Courtesy - ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' hero intern, Daniel Hernandez, caps a whirlwind of a month with a seat in first lady Michelle Obama's box for honored guests at the State of the Union address Tuesday night.

In town for the big night, Hernandez told ABC News that it's "bittersweet" to be a guest of the first lady. He said he looks forward to meeting the family of Christina Taylor Green, the slain 9-year-old whose parents are also guests of the first lady.

"I'm looking forward to being able to sit down with them and just have a conversation," Hernandez said. "I think it's going to be very cathartic for myself and I'm hoping for them as well, to be able to just talk about the events and also kind of coming together."

Hernandez –- who turned 21 years old Tuesday –- said his experience has strengthened his resolve to pursue a career in public service.

"The only thing that I want to come out of this is really two things; the first, a more positive and unified message which the president put out in Tucson at the memorial...and the other is more public service," he said.

"The events that happened in Tucson on the 8th only reinforced my desire to go into public service. So I think it should be more of a call to action for public service."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Court: No Printing of Ballots Without Rahm Emanuel

Photo Courtesy - ABC News(MIAMI) -- The Illinois Supreme Court on Tuesday granted an emergency request by former White House chief of staff and Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel to stop the city Board of Elections from printing ballots without his name.

A state appellate court ruled Monday that Emanuel did not meet the residency requirements to be eligible to run for office and therefore should not have his name on the ballot.  Emanuel has appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.

The Board had been poised to begin printing the ballots in the next few days. Election day is scheduled for Feb. 22 with early voting set to begin Jan. 31.

The court order requires Emanuel's name to appear on any mayoral ballots printed while the case is under appeal.

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Movement to Draft Keith Olbermann for Senate Taking Shape

Photo Courtesy - MSNBC-TV(PHILADELPHIA) -- Senator Keith Olbermann?

The liberal that liberals love to love is being goaded by at least one group of activists to make a run for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut that will be left open by Independent Joe Lieberman when he retires in two years.

Olbermann announced on his Countdown show last Friday that he was immediately parting ways with MSNBC but gave no reason for the split. It was later revealed that Olbermann and the channel had been arranging his departure for weeks, ostensibly over contract issues, although the takeover of parent company NBC by Comcast has been mentioned as a factor.

While delivering politically-charged diatribes against conservatives, Olbermann has never discussed getting involved in public service. In fact, he says all he wants to do now is work on his on blog, Baseball Nerd.

Yet liberal activists attending a conference in Pennsylvania over the weekend are attempting to draft Olbermann to run for Lieberman's soon-to-be vacant seat.

A blogger named Stranded Wind wrote that said that Olbermann "used to live in Connecticut and could easily return and establish residency." The movement is expected to gain steam on social networking sites.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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