On Tuesday night, politically-conscious Cornellians gathered before the Robert Purcell Community Center’s big-screen T.V., filled West Campus common rooms and tuned in on laptops to watch President Barack Obama’s second State of the Union address, which drew mixed responses from a student audience that professed to be much warier of idealistic rhetoric than they were last year.
Flanked by the beaming Vice President Joe Biden and the more stoic new Speaker of the House John Boehner — whose pink tie contrasted sharply with his stern stare — Obama emphasized the need for the United States to advance past the recent recession and to reclaim global preeminence in areas such as technology and education.
Obama emphasized competition with other nations, noting that South Korea, European countries and China in particular are surpassing American infrastructure and transportation. He evoked the “Sputnik” era of competition with the former Soviet Union and urged renewed emphasis on math and science in schools, describing an “education race” to produce the most capable citizens. Obama linked a strong educational system with economic competitiveness, including American competition with China for jobs.
Some Cornellians expressed concern about the pervasive rhetoric of competition, fearing development of an “us vs. them” mentality as Obama declared the need to “out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.”
“We’re past the Cold War. We have to move past ‘winners and losers,’” Caitie Flynn ’12 said. Flynn also expressed a concern that the lofty rhetoric of the speech went too far. “He sounded a little disingenuous. Not that I think he’s lying, but I worry he’s going to make promises he can’t keep,” she said.
And, indeed, Obama did propose numerous changes for the coming year. He advocated for the plight of illegal immigrants’ children while vowing to maintain strict protection of the nation’s borders. He proposed freezing annual domestic spending. Furthermore, when the President declared he would consistently veto bills with earmarks, he earned a standing ovation from former residential rival Senator John McCain (R - Ariz.)
Cornell Republicans, however, gave the President few standing ovations. Joe Bonica ’12, first vice chair of the Cornell University College Republicans, said he had hoped in vain that the President would take the opportunity to recognize faults in his foreign policy and propose changes.
“In typical Obama fashion, he completely flubbed this opportunity and fell back on his same old tired policies and talking points,” Bonica stated. Bonica further criticized the proposed five year spending freeze, calling it a “ruse” to cover up the need for deep spending cuts.
“Why should we freeze spending that is already much, much too high?” Bonica asked.
Cornell Democrats, on the other hand, expressed approval of many of the President’s outlined plans.
“I thought that the President provided a very definitive and actionable set of goals for the coming year, especially in terms of education and working to curtail the deficit,” said Andrew White ’12, who added that Obama’s proposals allow members of both major parties to work together to address problems.
Obama’s speech was followed not only by a response by Rep. Paul Ryan (R - Wis.), but also by a Tea Party response from Rep. Michele Bachmann (R - Minn.). Ryan focused on economic issues, calling for widespread cuts in government spending and criticizing the current administration’s stimulus efforts.
“Instead of restoring the fundamentals of economic growth, [Obama] engaged in a stimulus spending spree that not only failed to deliver on its promise to create jobs, but also plunged us even deeper into debt,” Ryan said. In turn, Bachmann excoriated Obama for widespread unemployment while also repeating Tea Party calls for an end to “Obamacare,” which she linked to government deficits.
Andrew White, of the Cornell Democrats, expressed skepticism of Ryan’s willingness to cooperate with the President, and summed up widespread Democratic scorn for the Tea Party in his criticism of Bachmann, whose speech, he said, showed “a dramatic misunderstanding of recent economic history.”
“[Bachmann] needs no help other than her own public speeches to discredit herself,” he said.