Obama, Republicans Vie to Win Public's Trust Over Plans for Spending Cuts

It comes down to trust.

President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to try to persuade the public to trust that he has heeded a call for smaller government that heralded his party’s 2010 election “shellacking,” calling for a five-year federal spending freeze and steps to rein in the deficit.

Republicans argued that they were the ones to be trusted to follow through on the Tea Party-infused message of budget- cutting that voters sent in November.

In dueling addresses to a national television audience yesterday, each side was striving to win over the public with a more convincing case for tackling the nation’s fiscal problems responsibly.

“Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means,” Obama said. “They deserve a government that does the same.” He answered Republicans’ call for steeper reductions of $100 billion by the end of the year, which the House endorsed in a symbolic vote yesterday, hours before the president spoke.

“I’m willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without. But let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens,” Obama said.

House Speaker John Boehner, a Ohio Republican, dismissed the president’s proposed freeze as “inadequate” and said Obama hadn’t heard voters at all.

“Unfortunately, even as he talked about the need for fiscal discipline, President Obama called for more ‘stimulus’ spending without making a commitment to the cuts and reforms the American people are demanding,” Boehner said in a statement following the speech.

‘Timidity and Denial’

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Budget Committee, said Obama’s spending ideas amounted to “timidity and denial.”

“Meaningfully reducing the size of our government and our deficit may not be easy, but it is the only responsible course,” he said in a statement.

In a response organized by the Tea Party Express, Republican Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota suggested that Obama has proven he is not to be trusted on the issue.

“For two years, President Obama made promises just like the ones we heard him make this evening,” she said. “Yet still we have high unemployment, devalued housing prices and the cost of gasoline is skyrocketing.”

Reconnect With Voters

For Obama, the State of the Union provided a chance to reconnect with voters -- particularly independents who abandoned Democrats in 2010 after backing him two years before -- while demonstrating that he has a plan for creating jobs and addressing the deficit.

“It boils down to Obama making a shift away from being a legislative president and towards being a thematic president,” said former Clinton administration White House aide Matt Bennett of Third Way, a Democratic-led policy group in Washington. “When your party loses the majority in a big way like his did, you’re going to have to do a little bit of nodding to the other side. He’s reaching toward the center.”

Still, some traditional Democratic allies were unhappy that Obama didn’t rule out cuts to entitlement programs, such as Social Security.

Obama acknowledged that cutting annual domestic spending would be insufficient to tackle the nation’s deficit problems.

“We have to stop pretending that cutting this kind of spending alone will be enough. It won’t,” he said. The president praised the work -- though not all the recommendations -- of a bipartisan deficit-cutting commission that endorsed Social Security benefit reductions.

‘Against the Will’

Nancy Altman, co-chairwoman of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, said Obama “left open the door for significant cuts to Social Security’s already modest benefits, a change that goes against the will of most Americans.”

Republicans are trying to balance a demand from Tea Party forces to strongly counter Obama with an effort to avoid being seen as shrill.

Democrats are working to portray Republicans as anti- spending zealots willing to cut popular programs. Obama “has carved out a very sensible compromise,” said Democratic Representative Rob Andrews of New Jersey.

Republicans’ plan would mean “2,000 fewer FBI agents, 25,000 fewer cancer research grants” at the National Institutes of Health, cuts to college Pell grants and other “counterproductive” measures, Andrews said after the speech.

‘Difficult Task’

If Republicans are mainly “fighting over who wants to cut more,” they will have “a difficult task” in persuading the public to trust them over over Obama, said John C. Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute. On the other hand, he added, “They’re not going to be held responsible as much as the president is.”

Just after Obama finished speaking, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said Republicans aren’t claiming to be perfect.

“Americans are skeptical of both political parties, and that skepticism is justified -- especially when it comes to spending,” Ryan said in his party’s official nationally televised rebuttal. “So hold all of us accountable.”

Florida Representative Allen West, a freshman Republican aligned with the Tea Party movement, said Obama “has to gain back the trust and confidence, and the Republicans have to as well.”

Obama’s lift is heavier in light of his record over the past two years, said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

“The president doesn’t have a lot of credibility on cutting spending,” Ayres said. “At this point he’s in a position where most Americans are looking at him and saying, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’”

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at   or Jdavis159@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva@bloomberg.net.

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