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 are arguing that they are the ones to be trusted to follow through on the Tea Party-infused message of budget-cutting that voters sent in November.
The day after they delivered dueling addresses to a national television audience, each side was striving to win over the public with a more convincing case for tackling the nation’s fiscal problems responsibly.
“It’s clear the president and his team haven’t gotten the message the American people sent in November,” House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said in a statement today. “We need to cut spending and enact serious budget reforms to ensure we keep cutting spending.”
Senate Democrats sought to quantify what they said were irresponsible cuts that would result if Republicans had their way on slashing spending. Democrats said they would include reductions in college Pell grants and the elimination thousands of FBI, food safety and nuclear safety workers.
“Republicans view the budget as a piñata,” said Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat. “They believe you can put on a blindfold and swing away and no matter what you hit is wasteful.” He called that a “mindless view.”
He was echoing the tone Obama sought to set in his speech last night, in which he likened the deficit challenge to a household dilemma.
“Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means,” Obama said. “They deserve a government that does the same.” He also answered Republicans who are pushing for steeper cuts -- as much as $100 billion this year -- than he’s proposing.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
Tea Party Demand
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.
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.’”