WASHINGTON — With an empty chair symbolizing the violence in Arizona, and a divided Congress coming together in its aftermath, President Barack Obama called on America Tuesday night to rise above differences and take on an increasingly competitive world with innovative ideas.
"Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater," Obama said at the outset of the State of the Union, nodding to where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords would have sat.
"What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight," he continued, "but whether we can work together tomorrow. I believe we can. I believe we must."
Speaking for just over an hour, Obama offered an upbeat appraisal of the economy, calling attention to a "roaring" stock market and a return to corporate profits. But he acknowledged worry over debt and outlined a five-year plan to cut government spending, which Republicans said did not go far enough.
The president pressed for "investments" in education and research to build a work force that can compete with the rising world economic powers, China and India. He called for a nationwide high-speed wireless network, investment in clean energy and restated plans for high-speed rail.
"We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world," Obama said, stitching the theme of his speech, a concept he called "winning the future."
"This is our generation's Sputnik moment," he said.
It was Obama's second State of the Union and his first before a split Congress. He acknowledged the Republican success in November, new House Speaker John Boehner seated behind him, and devoted much of his speech to trying to reach common ground.
The bipartisan notes came as Obama begins his re-election effort and needs to win back support of independents. Jumping on a Republican theme, Obama promised to veto any bill containing "earmarks," money lawmakers insert for projects in their home states.
He urged Congress to eliminate myriad tax loopholes and use the savings to lower the corporate tax rate without, he stressed, "adding to our deficit."
He borrowed from his State of the Union address last year and called on Congress to impose a five-year (up from his initial call of three years) freeze on discretionary government spending outside national security and entitlements.
Obama recognized that Republicans want deeper cuts — the House on Tuesday passed a resolution to roll back spending to 2008 levels — and said he was willing to consider alternatives, but with limits.
He did not offer direction on what to do about Social Security, Medicare and other entitlements dragging on the deficit but said he agreed with Republican concerns to rein in medical malpractice lawsuits.
The line got Republicans on their feet, creating an uneven visual throughout rows of seats.
The Jan. 8 shootings in Arizona gave rise to calls for more civility in Washington, and Democrats and Republicans tried to make good on that by mingling Tuesday night, rather than sitting on opposite sides of the chamber. Washington had been abuzz over the bipartisan date-night pairings, providing levity and at least temporary hope for cooperation.
Overall, however, Republicans were not impressed.
"Whether sold as 'stimulus' or repackaged as 'investment,' their actions show they want a federal government that controls too much; taxes too much; and spends too much in order to do too much," Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said in the GOP response.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said, "Instead of fruitlessly turning to government to create jobs, we should be working to cut spending, promote free-enterprise initiatives and give job creators the certainty they need to hire more workers."
Obama tried to sound a more conciliatory tone toward the health care overhaul, which Republicans are trying to dismantle, joking that he heard "rumors" some in the chamber still had concerns.
"Let me be the first to say that anything can be improved," he said, quickly adding that he was not ready go back to a time when insurers could deny people coverage for pre-existing conditions.
Obama devoted only the first moments of his address to the shootings in Arizona, which left six dead and 13 wounded, including Giffords, a moderate Democrat. But the tragedy's imprint was readily apparent.
Lawmakers pinned ribbons on their coats to honor Giffords and the other victims. "The white ribbon represents hope for a peaceful, nonviolent society. The black ribbon is in remembrance of all who have died and been wounded as a result of violence," Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz explained in a note to colleagues.
The Arizona delegation sat together and held the chair open for Giffords, whose recovery has been a source of inspiration. In the gallery near first lady Michelle Obama sat the medical team that attended to the victims.
Gun-safety advocates were closely watching for a call to ban the high-capacity ammunition magazines the Tucson shooter used, but Obama avoided the politically sensitive issue.
"How can President Obama tell us that 'the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that all deserve the chance to be fulfilled,' without talking about the gun violence that destroyed those dreams?" asked a bemused Paul Helmke of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Obama devoted the end of his address to the wars, acknowledging "tough fighting ahead" in Afghanistan but restating a pledge to start bringing troops home in July.
"We must never forget that the things we've struggled for, and fought for, live in the hearts of people everywhere. And we must always remember that the Americans who have borne the greatest burden in this struggle are the men and women who serve our country," Obama said as his audience stood in unison and delivered the strongest applause of the night.
Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.