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Obama's address fails to bridge local partisan divide: Democrats loved it, while Republicans did not

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 28, 2010 - For most presidential State of the Union addresses, members of Congress generally wait until after the speech to offer their assessment.

But on Wednesday, reflecting the political polarization in Washington, most St. Louis area members of Congress volunteered their observations before President Barack Obama had said a word.

And some who waited fired off their statements before the president had finished.

In any case, the reactions were predictable. Democrats lauded the president's remarks, while Republicans blasted them.

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, for example, said hours before the speech that he expected to agree with most of what the president had to say. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Town and Country, predicted that he likely would not.

And after the speech, Clay's observations were almost identical to what he'd said earlier in the day.

Obama, said Clay, "showed why he is such a remarkable leader. He reaffirmed our shared commitment to keep America safe, to restore economic security for the middle class, to create and save millions of jobs, and to help small businesses grow again. He also laid out a clear path towards energy independence and creating millions of new jobs in the 21st-century green economy."

Akin, meanwhile, said in an afternoon interview that Obama would need to make "a U-turn" to deliver an address that the conservative Republican congressman could agree with.

Akin said his own national concerns revolve around the need to create more jobs, cut "excessive federal spending" and protect national security.

While Obama did address those topics, Akin expected beforehand that he'd likely disagree with Obama's approach, based on the president's actions so far. And although Akin did not issue a post-speech statement Wednesday night, his earlier observations were in line with fellow Republicans who did.

U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., praised Obama as "an artful orator" who "said a lot of good things."

The senator added, "But I will be far more interested in what his administration does tomorrow than what he said tonight. While he signaled a willingness to move to the middle and find common ground with Republicans, I want less talk, more action. I’m from the Show-Me State -– so show me!”

Bond then blasted Obama's approach so far. "Over the last year the president swerved off course with big government, budget-busting policies. After tonight’s speech I’m not convinced the president recognizes that Americans want sanity brought back to Washington policies," the senator said.

"The president’s tough talk on terrorism was good to hear, I only hope he can convince the left wing of his party to go along. ... It is disappointing he failed to address the need to pass the Patriot Act to extend critical terror fighting tools, the foolhardy plan to close Gitmo, or stop the policy of treating terrorists like common criminals.”

As for health care, Bond said, "If the president is serious about passing health care reform to help folks struggling with rising premiums and higher health-care costs, he needs to scrap his proposed government takeover, end the backroom deals and instead work with Republicans on common sense, bipartisan solutions.”

(However, at the same time, Bond also said he hoped Obama "is serious about making the difficult decisions necessary to tackle the bulk of spending-spiraling entitlements-that threaten to bankrupt our nation.” Most Republicans have been spending months declaring they are out to protect such entitlements as Medicare.)

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and among Obama's biggest boosters, offered a concise post-speech statement packed with praise.

“The president was clear tonight that he wants the country to focus on several critical issues: creating an atmosphere where businesses are able to add new jobs, reducing our deficit, and continuing to stand firm in the face of global threats," she said.

"He extended a hand to Congress, including those in the Republican Party, to work with him on reaching these goals, and it’s obvious that is what Americans want to see in Washington. I hope those in Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, take that seriously in the coming months."

CARNAHAN WATCHES SPEECH WITH LOCAL FAMILY

For the most part, the region's members of Congress were in the Capitol's House chambers as part of Obama's audience.

The local exception was U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, who decided to watch the speech in St. Louis with a 3rd District couple, Tim and Mary Jo Clark, who the congressman said exemplified how "families are still struggling."

"Mary Jo and Tim Clark want what we all want," Carnahan said. "They want to build a better life for their kids, have decent health care they can rely on, spend their retirement financially secure. They’ve played by the rules, paid their bills, tried to put away some money for retirement.

"But like so many others, the Clarks have struggled in recent months. Tim and their daughter are out of work; other family members have found it hard to find affordable health insurance. "

In an interview afterward, Carnahan said he had been moved by a letter he'd received just a few days ago from Mary Jo Clark. After some discussion with his staff, Carnahan opted to fly home to join the Clarks to watch Obama's speech.

In that letter, Mary Jo Clark said, in part:

"I’ve tried to do my best to be a good citizen. I vote in most elections; I pay my taxes; I’ve even served on juries. I’ve tried to be financially responsible. I work for a living; I save some money; I contribute to my retirement plan; I’ve paid for my house; I don’t have credit card debt. Yet, despite doing the things I should be doing, I, and my family, have fallen victim to the irresponsible practices of some of our largest financial institutions.

"Additionally, my daughter and millions of others just like her, have fallen victim to the unnecessary flaws of our current health-care system."

Meanwhile, one of Carnahan's announced Republican rivals, St. Louis lawyer Ed Martin asserted that Obama's speech had been "more of the same."

"The $787 billion economic stimulus bill," said Martin, "was a complete and utter failure yet the president credited it almost solely for 'saving jobs and averting disaster.'”

PARTISAN GROUPS, OFFICIALS STUCK WITH THEIR OWN

The partisan split was evident Wednesday throughout Missouri's congressional delegation and key political party groups. Republicans viewed Obama's address as flawed, while Democrats thought his speech had been right on target.

U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Springfield and a candidate for the U.S. Senate, faulted the president for offering "a laundry list of new government programs, when the real answer is for the government to get out of the way and allow the engines of our economy to get to work creating good, permanent jobs and opportunity for Missourians."

U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, complained that "one speech filled with political promises is not going to repair the damage done to hard-working American families."

The back and forth continued among major party figures.

The Missouri Republican Party's executive director, Lloyd Smith, asserted in a statement, "“Barack Obama’s State of the Union address was defined by his stubborn refusal to admit that he was wrong to spend the past 12 months attempting to exploit the economic crisis to pass his liberal agenda."

But Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine, who grew up in Missouri and had flown into town to raise money and mingle with local activists, was pumped with praise. He lauded Obama for delivering "a magnificant speech" that called on Democrats to stick to their principles and govern.

Kaine had joined dozens of local Democrats who watched the address on a large screen at the St. Louis office of Organizing for America, Obama's post-election campaign arm.

The crowd applauded and cheered during the president's speech, and jeered when the TV broadcast zeroed in on prominent congressional Republicans who generally watched in silence, with their hands folded in their laps.

St. Louis Democratic Party chairman Brian Wahby was among the area officials at the Organizing for America watch party. Wahby praised the president for delivering a feisty address full of "bold vision. You'll see a totally re-energized base."

Angela Newsom, Democratic committeewoman for the city's 26th Ward, said she was pleased to hear the president call out the Republicans. "What got me going was when he said that this (economic) mess was there when he walked in the door."

And Missouri Organizing for America chief Dan Herman said that Obama "outlined a clear path forward for America that supports the needs of Main Street in the short-term, while setting our families and communities up for sustained and long-term success."

That certainly was not how top Missouri Republicans saw it -- indicating that Wednesday's president words, despite their acknowledged eloquence, did little to bridge the partisan congressional divide.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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