On a night when President Barack Obama appealed for a bipartisan approach to national problems from tax reform to protecting the vote, almost every visible sign showed why that remains unlikely.
Exemplifying the continuing partisan divide, Democratic Vice President Joe Biden often smiled as he rose to applaud Obama’s Tuesday night State of the Union proposals, while Republican House Speaker John Boehner shifted uncomfortably in his seat, often staring silently ahead.
Where the president sketched the broad-ranging, forward-looking agenda for his second term, Sen. Marco Rubio’s official Republican response reprised last year’s partisan arguments against his re-election.
At times, the ambitious Florida senator sounded like he was addressing a Republican presidential primary audience, reviving lines unheard since last spring’s GOP debates like condemning Obamacare and the failed Solyndra solar energy project.
“The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem,” Obama said, calling for partnerships with business. “His solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more,” Rubio responded, accusing Obama of proposing “false choices” like big government or big business.
The most graphic partisan differences came on the emotional subject of gun control. Obama told an audience that included former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others whose lives had been touched by gun violence that “overwhelming majorities of Americans, Americans who believe in the 2nd Amendment” favor “background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun” and laws to “get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets.”
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress,” he continued. “If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote.
“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote,” Obama said, rousing the night’s most fervent applause on a night many wore ribbons with the green and white colors of Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. “The families of Newtown deserve a vote.”
By contrast, Rubio mainly reprised the shopworn argument that gun control advocates are targeting constitutionally protected rights. “We must effectively deal with the rise of violence in our country,” he said. “But unconstitutionally undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it.”
So did Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., offering a separate tea party response that, despite brief criticism of over-spending by both parties, provided less a third choice than an echo of Rubio. “We will not let the liberals tread on the Second Amendment,” he said.
Economic issues produced predictable partisan differences, though Obama held out the prospect of modest Medicare cuts while reiterating future deficit reduction be balanced between spending cuts and tax increases. Rubio said “more government” would hurt the middle-class Americans it’s designed to help, while Paul urged a balanced budget amendment.
The Florida senator never said how he’d cope with the deficit, nor did he comment on Obama’s proposals “to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America” and create a nonpartisan commission to deal with the nation’s inadequate voting machinery.
When Obama reiterated his inaugural address’s call to combat climate change, promising executive action if necessary, Rubio dismissed it, noting “no matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather.”
Even on immigration, the issue where Obama and key Republican legislators may be closest to agreement, the two spoke from different scripts.
Obama talked of building on his administration’s progress toward “strong border security” and “establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship,” applauded bipartisan efforts and urged completion of a bill he can sign within months.
Rubio, never mentioning he is part of those bipartisan efforts, said that before crafting “a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”
Beyond immigration, Obama hopes to generate enough public support to force recalcitrant Republicans to act. But that may prove difficult, even for a determined, re-elected president.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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