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Hope for Common Ground After Obama’s Call for Less Division

Obama exchanges some non-partisan handshakes as he enters the chamber for his final State of the Union address. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Obama exchanges some non-partisan handshakes as he enters the chamber for his final State of the Union address. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union call for less rancor and division in American politics left Congress predictably divided. Democrats praised his focus on fixing politics as a strong rebuttal to the nastiness of the current political scene, while Republicans pointed to recent legislative accomplishments as evidence that the system is far from broken.  

But amid their varied reactions to Tuesday night’s speech emerged some consensus on domestic issues, including expanding access to higher education, reforming the criminal justice system and working toward a cure for cancer.  

“I think you’re going to see us getting more things done than people ever thought,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.  

Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo agreed. “I am excited about a few domestic priorities that the president mentioned, like criminal justice reform,” he said. “I think we can change hundreds of thousands of lives at least in this country if we work together and get this right – really give people a second shot at success in life.”  

There was less consensus on foreign policy issues and several Republicans expressed chagrin that the president did not mention the 10 U.S. Navy sailors who were being detained by Iran while the speech was going on. “The president not only ignored that, but acted as if his foreign policy is working and tried to condemn any naysayers,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La.

But Democrats said the president was right to stay mum on the issue, involving two small boats in Iranian waters. “The situation is so in flux that anything you might say might actually hurt their safety,”  Schumer said. “I think he was putting the safety of the sailors first.”  

The sailors were back in “U.S. hands” on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a statement.  

Obama’s speech comes at a time when House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has led the fractious Republican caucus to some legislative victories and has committed to develop a substantive agenda for the new year. Obama noted Ryan’s focus on addressing poverty, an issue where the president expressed hope for common ground. Ryan said he was not swayed by the president’s words.  

“I can’t say I was disappointed by the president’s speech, but that’s because I wasn’t expecting much,” Ryan said in a statement. Obama’s policies aren’t working, he added, noting that two-thirds of Americans  say the country is on the wrong track. “Success doesn’t need hype; it speaks for itself,” the Wisconsin Republican said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who led the successful push for a bipartisan education bill last year, was more optimistic. “This record shows that if President Obama focuses on what he agrees on with Congress instead of what we disagree on, there’s quite a bit we could get done in 2016,” Alexander said. “The president has plenty of opportunities to work with the Republican majority to get things done that the American people want done.”  

Obama’s call for a national campaign to cure cancer quickly emerged as an area of possible consensus. “Democrats will respond to President Obama’s call to make ‘America the country that cures cancer once and for all’ by working with the private sector, patient groups, and continuing to ensure the National Institutes of Health have the resources they need to accomplish that task,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.  

Likewise, Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., predicted the president’s charge to find a cure for cancer would enjoy broad support among appropriators and is a cause many members have personal experience with. Honda’s wife died of cancer.  

Republicans were quick to note that they have already provided more funding for NIH cancer research, but would be open to hearing more from the president. “I lost my father to cancer … it’s something that shouldn’t be partisan,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.  

McCarthy, R-Calif., said that foreign policy was “by far” the biggest disappointment of the speech.  

Another Republican, Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, pointed to the Iranian detention of the 10 sailors as symptomatic of a failed approach to foreign relations.  

“The president’s foreign policy of appeasement first, then ‘strategic patience,’ followed promptly by ‘leading from behind’ has been an utter failure,” Murphy said. “We must demonstrate strength and take strong action when necessary to fully stop terrorism. No more appeasement, no more pretending radical Islamist terrorists aren’t on the move and no more pretending the actions by hostile nations are simply ‘misunderstandings.'”  

Obama’s call to shut down the prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba also drew criticism.  

“Closing Guantanamo will never endear radical Islamic fundamentalists to America,” Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas said in a statement. “It will simply move these detainees and their security risks north, to one of the communities in our states.”

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