By andy Marso
WASHINGTON — President Obama invoked the space race with the Soviet Union to challenge Congress to rise above partisanship and work with him to usher in a new age of American innovation in his State of the Union address Tuesday.
With Republican and Democratic senators and representatives sitting together in a symbolic gesture of solidarity in the wake of the Jan. 8 mass shooting in Tucson, Obama said investment in research, education and infrastructure would be key to keeping the United States competitive with countries like China and India.
“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” Obama said, referring to the Soviet satellite that first orbited the earth in 1957 and startled the United States into a flurry of scientific breakthroughs.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governor’s Association, said the emphasis on innovation, education and rebuilding infrastructure was exactly what Democratic governors wanted to hear.
“It’s certainly the message the Democratic governors have embraced and are running with,” said O’Malley, whose own agenda calls for creating jobs in Maryland through its bio-tech, life-sciences, aerospace and cyber security sectors. “We need to make the right choices now so that our kids are the winners.”
But newly elected Rep. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, was unimpressed with the president’s speech.
“He rolled out the same old tired smoke and mirrors,” Harris said.
Obama said breakthroughs in green energy, information technology and biomedical research would create jobs and he promised a budget proposal that included government investment in those areas.
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore, said that was a good sign for the state.
“Maryland is among the nation’s leaders in innovative technologies like alternative energy, biotech, health information systems and cybersecurity, all of which are critical to our economic and national security,” Cardin said in a written statement.
Obama outlined several clean energy goals, including becoming the first nation with a million electric cars on the road by 2015 and converting 80 percent of the nation’s energy supply to wind, solar, nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas by 2035.
To pay for investments in alternative energy he proposed eliminating subsidies for oil companies.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own,” Obama said. “So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.”
On education, Obama said the United States had slipped to ninth globally in the percentage of young citizens with college degrees.
He challenged Congress to make the $10,000 tuition tax credit permanent and stumped for his Race to the Top program as an alternative to No Child Left Behind and as a way to improve public schools.
“You see, we know what’s possible for our children when reform isn’t just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals, school boards and communities,” Obama said.
The Tucson shooting, which left six dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., in critical condition, provided a backdrop for Obama’s call for bipartisan cooperation.
Giffords intern Daniel Hernandez, widely credited with saving the Congresswoman’s life by rushing to staunch the bleeding from the bullet wound to her head, was among those sitting with First Lady Michelle Obama in the House of Representatives chamber.
Early in his speech, Obama spoke of the perspective that the tragedy in Tucson temporarily gave the nation — a moment when partisan politics were somberly swallowed up by raw, human emotion.
“Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater – something more consequential than party or political preference,” he said. “We are part of the American family.”
A seat was left empty in Giffords’ honor by the Arizona delegation, which sat together — seven Republicans and three Democrats.
Maryland’s delegation also reached out to members of the opposite party. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, for example, sat next to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“I recognize we all want the same thing,” Bartlett said. “We just have very different ideas of how we get there.”
Obama proposed a five-year freeze on domestic, discretionary spending, but acknowledged that some in the Republican-led House of Representatives had already called for deeper cuts. He also pushed Congress to support the $78 billion cuts in military spending proposed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates for the next five years and renewed his call for letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the nation’s wealthiest earners as methods of reducing the deficit.
“He called on a freeze, but that doesn’t go far enough,” Harris said. “He should stick to a more Republican plan, which includes a 20 percent cut.”
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville, was glad to hear the President talking deficit reduction.
“I think the deficit is one of the most difficult issues we face,” Ruppersberger said. “It’s weakening us and we’re all going to have to sacrifice.”
Obama highlighted wireless Internet access, high-speed rail and road and bridge renovations in his call for new investments in infrastructure.
He also spoke of creating a more open, streamlined government and a simplified tax code and thanked the troops for progress in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Capital News Service’s Jessica Harper, Steve Kilar and Laura Lee contributed to this report.