This year, the optics of President Obama’s State of the Union address (familiarly known as SOTU) promised to be a departure from recent tradition. Owing to the calls for civility after the Tucson shooting, dozens of members of Congress sat with members of the other party so that we would no longer see one side of the room applaud and rise while the other side remained anchored to its seats, dourly scowling. The new seating plan may be largely symbolic, but it has garnered support in the legislature, in the hope that this gesture toward civility will facilitate measured debate in place of heated invective. Already, the bill to Repeal the Job-Killing Healthcare Law Act has mellowed somewhat, at least in name: it’s now the bill to Repeal the Job-Crushing Health Care Act.

The novelty added anticipation to the festivities, and at some points the awkwardness of a junior prom, with politicians asking for “dates” across the aisle. Majority Leader Eric Cantor asked former Speaker Nancy Pelosi to sit with him, but she’d already made other plans. The oddest couple may have been senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Coburn (R-OK)– pictured near right and right, respectively–who were fierce adversaries over the 9/11 first responders bill. Coburn “graciously agreed” to sit with him, Schumer said on CBS’ Face the Nation. “And,” he added, “I think if Coburn and Schumer can sit next to each other, then probably just about everybody can.”

Obama began began by evoking the spirit of unity he had inspired in Tucson two weeks ago after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and 18 others were shot. This seemed to some a good time to call for stricter gun control, but the president made no mention of the loopholes in our Swiss-cheese gun laws or the need for more thorough screening of gun-permit applicants. He may have deliberately avoided raising any hackles because the shooting that shocked the nation resulted in little or no increased support for stricter gun control.

Job creation and boosting the economy underlay most of Obama’s agenda, which he dubbed “Win the Future.” (It took wags mere minutes to reduce the slogan to “WTF.”) He still wants to ramp up biomedical research and develop information and clean energy technologies. Our infrastructure needs to be rebuilt: roads and bridges are crumbling, our railroads old and creaky while China, Japan, and the Europeans are whizzing along on high-speed rail. The stimulus enabled thousands of workers in the hard-hit construction industry to begin the work of repair; Obama would redouble those efforts, creating jobs and attracting business.

Tacitly challenging the conservative convictions that government is inherently negative, wasteful, and incompetent, and that all investment should originate in the private sector, Obama repeatedly made the case that government investment is crucial if we are to regain our pre-eminence in education, restore our infrastructure, and move forward in the 21st century. The innovations in technology and breakthroughs in medicine and science were made possible by government investment, he stated. But Republicans didn’t fail to note that “investment” is another word for “spending,” which, in combination with “government,” is the conservative bête noire.

But Obama made it difficult for Republicans to oppose new funds for education, pulling no punches about U.S. standings in the global educational rankings. India and China “educate their children earlier and younger,” Obama said. “If we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas, then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.”He went on to declare: “Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.”

After the Russians surprised us by launching the Sputnik, Obama reminded us, in the 1960s we invested in better research and education, which enabled us not only to surpass the Soviets, but to unleash “a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.”

Some of Obama’s proposals had elements that were red meat to one party and anathema to the other. He proposed closing the loopholes in the tax code, which would make possible the lowering of corporate tax rates. Democrats nodded approvingly at the former and Republicans at the latter. But when he insisted that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans have to go, progressives rejoiced and Republicans fumed.

Naturally, Obama couldn’t ignore the deficit. He proposed freezing annual domestic spending for the next five years, which appears to be at odds with his investment goals. So to offset the spending he advocates for education, infrastructure and research, Obama would eliminate the subsidies—which amount to billions of dollars—to the oil companies, “because,” as he noted, “they’re doing just fine on their own.” To placate conservatives, he encouraged Republicans to suggest improvements to the health care law, and agreed to consider their proposal of medical malpractice reform. But he was, of course, adamantly opposed to the wholesale repeal of his signature legislation.

He said little about entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security, which account for about 60 percent of federal spending—an area of public policy that many of us will be watching closely as the Congressional wrangling begins. He did say these programs will have to be modified, but not “on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.” Obama would, he said, “strengthen Social Security for future generations. And we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.”

Turning to foreign affairs, Obama made no mention of Israel. Yesterday on “Morning Joe,” Zbigniew Brzezinski theorized that this omission may signify either that he’s given up on achieving peace or that he’s expecting a new development in the near future.

Obama didn’t try to sugar-coat the pain and difficulty that lie ahead. We must reduce the deficit, he explained, reform our schools and wean ourselves off “yesterday’s energy” as we develop green ways to satisfy our (hopefully diminished) need. Everyone will be affected by the deep cuts. Sacrifice will be required. But his peroration was devoted to the premise that we can do it because of who we are. “We do big things,” he said.

Here’s hoping we do more of them in 2011.

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