POLITICS

Obama State Of The Union Address Highlights Battle For The Middle Class

WASHINGTON -- More than anything, President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address signaled a fresh battle for the hearts and minds of America's beleaguered middle class -- and Republicans weren't having any of it.

Obama mentioned the middle class at least seven times and touted "working" people at least nine as he rolled out proposals to offer new child tax credits, raise the minimum wage, extend paid family leave and make college more affordable. He mentioned "families" 16 times.

But well before Obama's speech was over, House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) office was firing off responses, declaring that Obama's "regulatory onslaught squeezes the very middle-class families he claims to be trying to help," and that he was threatening to veto what Republicans consider to be jobs bills.

In the GOP response to the address, freshman Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) suggested that the president has harmed regular people.

“The new Republican Congress also understands how difficult these past six years have been," said Ernst, who first attracted attention by promising to make Washington insiders squeal like the hogs she used to castrate on a farm. "For many of us, the sting of the economy and the frustration with Washington’s dysfunction weren’t things we had to read about. We felt them every day."

Such sentiments were echoed widely by Republicans leaving the address, who pointed to people's struggles as evidence that the GOP's agenda will better serve most Americans.

"If you look at middle-class families who have lost income over the past several years, if you look at Colorado families where median income has declined ... that is not a stronger place than it was, and not a stronger place than it needs to be," said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).

"You know, I was disappointed. I was disappointed that I didn’t hear more from the president as far as how we were going to help those middle-class families," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the top woman in the GOP leadership. "I thought he painted a little rosy picture of how things are, at a time when people continue to see their wages actually shrink, take-home pay shrinking. Job opportunities are not enough.”

But the tone of the GOP's response highlighted a difficult fact to deal with in the two years before the next presidential election: Republicans are making an argument that is often negative, leaving Obama and Democrats to strike a more positive tone as unemployment continues to fall and hiring improves.

And it is focused right at the heart of the American electorate.

Asked for three highlights in the president's speech, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said: "Middle class, middle class and middle class." And asked if Republicans would be legislative partners on most of the issues Obama raised, Israel responded, "No, no and no."

Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), who has long argued that the Democrats should keep the middle class at the heart of their efforts, didn't see much chance in the GOP topping the pitch Obama laid out.

"We’ve been talking about the middle class for a long time," Schumer said. "They [Republicans] have been talking about budget deficits and cutting the deficit -- not now. Even the [Keystone] pipeline, which is hardly a middle-class bill, 35 permanent jobs, [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell is saying it's a middle-class jobs bill. They’ve appropriated our rhetoric, but that’s about it. They can’t break away from being a special interest party.”

Some Republicans acknowledged that they had a more negative message, but they also suggested Americans would not buy Obama's prescriptions.

"Those are the kind of background noise that you hear in every State of the Union speech -- kind of a litany or grab bag of proposals. It'll be forgotten by midnight," said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) called Obama's ideas "everything for everybody," and suggested that people in his state, at least, would not believe the president.

"They understand that there's nothing in life free," Boozman said. "When you promise universal this, universal that, somebody's going to have to pay for that, and the reality is the middle class always winds up paying the bill."

The basic disagreement over which policies are viable and which ones will do the most to help the nation's most-coveted voting bloc also telegraph what is likely to be a contentious two years, with the GOP willing to embrace almost none of Obama's proposals.

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) predicted the likely level of cooperation between the White House and the GOP-led Congress by invoking a phrase used in Passover celebrations that asks, "Why is this night different from all other nights?"

"With regards to Republicans and their antipathy to the president, tonight was no different from all other nights," Grayson said, noting how GOP lawmakers would "sit there like stone" every time Obama outlined one of his priorities. "They don't care ... unfortunately his proposals that require congressional approval are dead on arrival."

Julia Craven, Jesse Rifkin, Donte Stallworth and Maxwell Tani contributed reporting.

CONVERSATIONS