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State of the Union: Analysis

WASHINGTON (AP) -- For all the talk of harmony, there was no shortage of stark differences.

President Barack Obama and newly empowered Republicans each framed their rival political themes, ones that will carry them to the 2012 elections, in Tuesday night's State of the Union address and the GOP response.

With signs that the recovery is beginning to pick up steam, the occasion gave both parties a chance to look forward -- not back to the economic mess in the nation's rear-view mirror.

Each side called for cuts in federal spending but disagreed on the scope and timing.

Obama's wish list includes new government "investments" in education and infrastructure such as roads and bridges and increased competitiveness. In other words, more selective government spending and more sales of U.S. goods and services abroad.

"At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else," Obama said in excerpts released by the White House ahead of the speech.

Republicans scoffed at the concept of "investments" and suggested the president was merely seeking to continue a "historic" spending spree. They've put tackling the nation's $14 trillion debt at the center of their agenda, beginning with spending cuts sooner rather than later.

It's a goal that resonates with the tea party factions within the GOP. Republicans assert that taming soaring deficits, not adding to the debt, will put the economy back on the path of growth and that will spur private-sector job growth.

In timing that was anything but coincidental, earlier Tuesday the Republican-controlled House voted 256-165 to return most domestic agencies to 2008 budget levels.

"Americans are skeptical of both political parties, and that skepticism is justified -- especially when it comes to spending," said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in the GOP response. "So hold us all accountable."

Obama agrees that tackling trillion-dollar-plus annual deficits is a national priority -- but a long-range one, not one that needs to be taken on with the unemployment rate stubbornly stuck above 9 percent. He proposed extending for another two years the three-year partial freeze of domestic programs he suggested last year and was expected to call for military spending cuts.

Republicans have called those cuts inadequate, far less than the cuts House Republicans are pushing. But even the GOP effort at fiscal austerity would only make a small dent in the nation's debt.

As they lay out their positions, the risks are high for both parties.

Obama needs to win back independent voters, who helped him win the presidency in 2008 but deserted Democratic candidates in favor of Republicans in last November's midterm elections. He sought to solidify his reshaped image as a builder of compromise and pledged a major job-building effort.

Despite their new clout, Republicans, too, are mindful that repeating the gains they made last November in the 2012 election cycle won't be a cakewalk.

"Everybody, not just Obama but members of Congress, want to have something to show for the next two years," said Rutgers political science professor Ross Baker.

For the first time in a while, Obama has some wind at his back, something Republicans hadn't counted on just a few months back. His approval ratings have climbed above 50 percent, higher than the mid-40s where Presidents Reagan and Bill Clinton found themselves at the same point in their first terms.

Historically, the odds are also in favor of Obama's winning a second term, especially if the economy keeps improving. Incumbents have run in 10 presidential elections since the end of World War II and won seven of them.

Some afterglow remains from progress in last year's lame-duck session. In addition to the deal with Republicans on taxes and new stimulus spending, Obama won congressional approval of a bill to let gays and lesbians serve openly in the military and Senate ratification of the New START treaty with Russia.

And his State of the Union address follows a moving speech after the Tucson shootings and a well-executed summit and state dinner with President Hu Jintao of China.

Ever since what he called his party's "shellacking" in the midterm elections, Obama has moved quickly to retool his presidency and mend fences with business. He extended existing Bush-era tax cuts, introduced new ones, completed a free-trade agreement with South Korea, ordered a government-wide review of regulations with a goal of weeding out ones that hinder business and appointed a banker as chief of staff.

He moved to the center, much as President Bill Clinton did after heavy Democratic losses in the 1994 midterm elections.

"He had to bow to practical realities. He knows he can't get a climate control bill through Congress," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "He got the last of his stimulus in the lame-duck session; he's not going to get any more out of this new Congress."

"What he is contesting," Mann adds, "is the Republican characterization of him as this out-of-control liberal."


EDITOR'S NOTE -- Tom Raum has covered national affairs for The Associated Press since 1973, including six presidencies.


An AP News Analysis


Associated Press Writer

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