President Barack Obama gave Americans a sign of how he'll lead the country in the run up to next year's election, as he used his State of the Union policy address to stake out ground in the political center and call on Republicans and Democrats to work together to revive the U.S. economy.
The nationally televised speech Tuesday night was critical for Obama. It was his first appearance before Congress since opposition Republicans took control of the House of Representatives earlier this month. It marked the midpoint of his presidential term, as he rebounds from the Democrats' electoral defeat in November. And whatever Obama's attempts to rise beyond politics, the speech came as he begins positioning himself for his 2012 re-election campaign.
Obama was following up his speech with a trip to the Midwestern state of Wisconsin on Wednesday to tour three factories in the Manitowoc area that the White House says would benefit from the investments in innovation and infrastructure the president called for in Tuesday's speech.
Obama will also highlight how the companies benefited from the policies enacted during his first two years in office, including grants to provide incentives for the production of renewable energy.
Wisconsin is likely to be a crucial battleground state in the 2012 election, and Obama's trip underscores the White House's increased focus on the president's re-election campaign.
On Tuesday night, Obama walked down the center aisle of a packed House chamber in far stronger political shape than could have been anticipated three months ago when his Democrats suffered a devastating defeat.
Joblessness remains at 9.4 percent, but the economy is growing, and polls place Obama's approval rating above 50 percent, higher than it has been in almost a year. One recent survey recorded a double-digit increase in recent months among independent voters, who deserted the Democrats and swung behind Republicans last fall.
In his speech, Obama kept the focus on the economy, the issue that dragged down his party in last year's election and will likely be pivotal in 2012. He called for both parties to unite behind his program of cuts and spending, saying: "We will move forward together or not at all."
He proposed no major initiatives comparable to the health care overhaul that dominated the first two years of his presidency. Instead, he outlined a balanced agenda aimed at both ends of the political spectrum.
For Democrats, he defended his health care plan, opposed privatization of the Social Security pension program and called for ending tax cuts for the rich. He also proposed a burst of spending on education, research, technology and transportation to make the U.S. more competitive with emerging economic powers like China and India.
But Obama also backed some top priorities of Republicans. He called for freezing some federal spending, cutting the corporate tax rate, shaking up the federal government and eliminating lawmakers' pet projects.
Though Obama won some cheers from Republicans, they remain dissatisfied with his efforts to cut the deficit, their core issue. They have dismissed his investment proposals as merely new spending. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, giving the official Republican response, said the United States was at "a tipping point" leading to a dire future if federal deficits aren't trimmed.
"We are at a moment, where if government's growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America's best century will be considered our past century," Ryan said.
Obama spoke to a television audience in the millions and a Congress sobered by the assassination attempt against one if its own members, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. She was seriously wounded in the shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona, that killed six people. Her seat sat empty.
Many in both parties wore black-and-white lapel ribbons, signifying the deaths in Tucson and the hopes of the survivors. Giffords' husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, watched Obama's speech from her bedside at a Houston hospital, as he held her hand.
Obama entered the House chamber to prolonged applause, and to the unusual sight of Republicans and Democrats seated next to one another rather than on different sides of the center aisle, in a show of support and civility following Giffords' shooting.
Calling for a new day of cooperation, Obama said: "What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight but whether we can work together tomorrow."
Obama used the stories of some of the guests sitting with his wife, Michelle, to illustrate his points, including a small business owner who designed a drilling technology that helped rescue the trapped Chilean miners.
There was less of the seesaw applause typical of State of the Union speeches in years past, where Democrats stood to applaud certain lines and Republicans embraced others. Members of the two parties found plenty of lines worthy of bipartisan applause.
In a speech with little focus on national security, Obama appeared to close the door on keeping any significant U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond the end of the year. "This year, our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people while we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq," the president said.
The president reiterated his call for a comprehensive immigration bill, although there appears little appetite for it Congress. Another big Obama priority that stalled and died in the last Congress, a broad effort to address global climate change, did not get a mention in the State of the Union. Nor did gun control or the struggling effort to secure peace in the Middle East.
While Obama's speech included little on foreign affairs, he did announce he will visit Brazil, Chile and El Salvador in March. Obama also called on Congress to approve a recently negotiated free-trade agreement with South Korea as soon as possible.