Obama Throws Down the Gauntlet

Barrington M. Salmon | 1/25/2012, 12:33 p.m.

Shares His Vision, Challenges GOP to Help Lead, Not Obstruct

President Barack Obama delivered the third State of the Union of his presidency before a joint session of Congress in the House of Representatives, and for much of the hour-long address he spoke of his determination to help restore the fortunes of America's beleaguered middle class.

Obama warned Congress and the nation that middle class hopes and aspirations were at risk and in danger of being lost to a generation of Americans. He cited the example of his grandparents who were contributors to, and the beneficiaries of, the American Dream.

"They understood that they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to the story of success every American had a chance to share - the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college and put away a little for retirement."

But now, Obama said, the middle class is at risk of being washed away by a river of economic and tax inequities, housing foreclosures, stubborn unemployment and a host of other economic, social and political challenges. And he offered a prescription that he said would level the playing field and restore hope to middle class Americans.

"The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive," he told lawmakers Tuesday night in a speech that was elegant, moving, forceful and sometimes combative. "No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules.

"What's at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them."

Obama used his bully pulpit to unveil what he described as a blueprint for "an America built to last." His speech focused on returning Americans to work through reengineering and job retraining, innovation and American ingenuity, education, and creating greater numbers of high-quality jobs. He bubbled with optimism throughout his address and asserted at one point ... America is back. Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about ..."

For several hours Tuesday night, more than 100 people congregated in and around the 11th floor offices of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Northwest. The group at the watch party and roundtable discussions included working professionals, entrepreneurs, students, representatives from a number of non-profits, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and a delegation of elected officials from Maryland.

Before the president's speech, small groups of individuals in the lobby, boardroom and other parts of the 11th floor mingled, conversed, nibbled on hors d'oeuvres, sipped wine and other beverages and discussed politics. During Obama's speech, some made comments, others signaled agreement with the president verbally, most cheered and applauded parts of the speech that appealed to them, and reacted to Republicans who wore grim, stoic expressions much of the night.