President Barack Obama did what he needed to do with his State of the Union address Tuesday, laying out his vision for how the nation transitions to a new economy through innovation and fiscal discipline.
But now comes the hard part: selling it.
Obama hit the road Wednesday to kick off what will be a weeks-long national campaign to get Americans on board with his message of “winning the future” in the global economy. Presidents typically travel the country after their State of the Union speeches to try to seize on any post-address momentum, but Obama’s tour may have slightly higher stakes: His popularity is just beginning to climb after months in the doldrums, and his re-election campaign is just getting under way.
His first stop on the “White House to Main Street Tour” was Manitowoc, Wis., where he viewed three clean-energy companies that he said represented the kinds of businesses that are helping the country stay competitive.
“Here in America, we play to win,” he said during remarks at Orion Energy Systems Inc., a solar power company in Manitowoc.
“If entrepreneurs like [CEO Neal Verfuerth] keep sticking with it and small businesses like Orion keep breaking new ground, and if we, as a country, continue to invest in you, then I’m absolutely confident America will win the future in this century,” Obama said.
The president will hammer his message of innovation over the coming days; the theme is one of five pillars that he outlined in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address. Obama will spend the coming weeks campaigning on each of the other themes: education, building, reform and responsibility.
“As the president talks about building, as the president talks about education on trips in the next several weeks … you will see him highlight different … stories around the country that help highlight some of the important things that are happening all over this country and throughout the states to meet and address these challenges,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday during a gaggle aboard Air Force One.
Obama won’t be the only one out there campaigning. Vice President Joseph Biden spent Wednesday in Indiana visiting a hybrid and electric vehicle manufacturer. Karen Mills, who heads the Small Business Administration, was in St. Louis visiting Innoventor Inc., a company that has helped foster green technology. And Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will spend today in South Carolina touring an advanced transportation fuel technology development facility.
The president earned high marks after he delivered his second State of the Union address: One poll by CBS News found 91 percent of those who watched the speech approved of the proposals; another poll by CNN found 84 percent viewed the speech as “positive.”
And House Democratic leaders applauded Obama for echoing their calls for tying innovation and clean energy to job growth.
His speech was “like our ‘Make It In America’ agenda, which we have been working on for six months and was the theme of our retreat,” a senior House Democratic aide said.
But as the massive campaign effort gets under way, the president still has a ways to go in winning over Republican support. House and Senate GOP leaders have criticized Obama for not going far enough in his proposals to rein in spending. One of his most significant proposals is a five-year freeze on annual domestic spending.
“He speaks like one who recognizes that spending is out of control, and yet his response is to propose that we lock in spending levels we all know are completely unsustainable,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday.
“This isn’t progress. This is an admission of defeat,” the Kentucky Republican said. “Americans don’t want a spending freeze at unsustainable levels. They want cuts, dramatic cuts. And I hope the president will work with us on achieving them soon.”
Speaker John Boehner called Obama’s proposed freeze “inadequate” and questioned how the president can push for more fiscal discipline while also seeking more spending in areas such as infrastructure and clean energy.
“President Obama called for more ‘stimulus’ spending without making a commitment to the cuts and reforms the American people are demanding,” the Ohio Republican said. “Adding to our debt and pushing us closer to bankruptcy for the sake of more ‘stimulus’ spending will not make our nation more competitive.”
It remains to be seen whether Republicans will side with Obama on some of his proposals that more typically earn bipartisan support. Among them, corporate tax reform, free-trade agreements, tweaks to health care reform and changes to the No Child Left Behind education reform law.
There have already been some signs that Obama’s priorities are gaining bipartisan traction. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said during a Wednesday conference call that they have made progress with the administration on No Child Left Behind.
“We not only have bipartisanship, we’re working with the House on this, too,” Enzi said. “I’m pleased with how much of a bipartisan effort has already gone into this.”
Harkin predicted they would have a proposal in markup by Easter recess and a final bill on the president’s desk by late summer. “I think we’re in a position now to move quickly,” he said.
But even Boehner, whom the president specifically cited in his speech as an example of someone living the American dream, signaled that he needs time to digest Obama’s proposals.
Asked Wednesday what he thought of the address, he told reporters, “It was OK.”