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Obama to GOP, Dems: Come together to solve health care

President Barack Obama gives his State of the

President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 27, 2010 in Washington, DC. Credit: Getty Images

Facing a bitterly divided Congress, President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address Wednesday night implored Democrats and Republicans to come together to fix the nation's broken health care system, limping economy and soaring deficits.

The president, who pledged to create jobs, said Americans "are tired of the partisanship and the shouting and the pettiness,' he said. "They know we can't afford it."

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He then beseeched lawmakers not to walk away from his prized health care overhaul, which is in severe danger in Congress.

"I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people," he said. "And I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, this process left most Americans wondering what's in it for them. But I also know this problem is not going away. By the time I'm finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance. . . . Patients will be denied the care they need.

"I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber," he said to applause.

Obama was looking to change the conversation from how his presidency is stalling - over the messy health care debate, a limping economy and the missteps that led to Christmas Day's barely averted terrorist disaster on board an airliner - to how he is seizing the reins on the economic worries foremost on Americans' minds.

He defended the federal government's bank bailout, which he acknowledged was "as popular as a root canal.

"But when I ran for president, I promised I wouldn't just do what was popular - I would do what was necessary," he said. "And if we had allowed the meltdown of the financial system, unemployment might be double what it is today."

He also promised to work with Congress and the military to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, "the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are."

In his speech, the president devoted about two-thirds of his time to the economy, emphasizing his ideas, some new but mostly old and explained anew, for restoring job growth, taming budget deficits and changing Washington's ways. These concerns are at the roots of voter emotions that drove supporters to Obama, but now are turning on him as he governs.

Indicating he understands Americans' struggles to pay bills while big banks get bailouts and bonuses, Obama prodded Congress to enact a second stimulus package and to provide new financial relief for the middle class.

Acknowledging frustration at the government's habit of spending more than it has, he sought a three-year freeze on some domestic spending (while proposing a 6.2 percent, or $4 billion, increase in the popular arena of education and supporting the debt-financed jobs bill) and announced he is creating a bipartisan deficit-reduction task force.

"Let's try common sense," Obama said. "Let's invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt."

Positioning himself as a fighter for the regular guy and a different kind of leader, he urged Congress to require lobbyists to disclose all contacts with lawmakers or members of his administration and to blunt the impact of last week's Supreme Court decision allowing corporations greater flexibility in supporting or opposing candidates.

"I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities," he said.

Even before Obama spoke, some of the new proposals, many revealed by the White House in advance, were being dismissed - on the right or the left - as poorly targeted or too modest to make a difference.

And in the Republican response, Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia showed no sign of his party capitulating to Obama. In fact, the choice of McDonnell to represent Republicans was symbolic, meant to showcase recent GOP election victories by him and others. McDonnell reflected the anti-big government sentiment that helped lead to their wins, saying in excerpts from his own post-speech remarks that Americans want good health care they can afford, just not by turning over "the best medical care system in the world to the federal government."

With State of the Union messages traditionally delivered at the end of January, Obama had one of the presidency's biggest platforms just a week after Republicans scored an upset takeover of a Senate seat in Massachusetts, prompting hand-wringing over his leadership.

With the turnover erasing Democrats' Senate supermajority needed to pass most legislation, it also put a cloud over health care and the rest of Obama's agenda.

Senate allies, for instance, said Wednesday that a sizable, debt-financed package containing the proposals Obama wants is out of the question in the new climate and that they plan a trimmed-down measure with tax breaks for small businesses and help for state and local governments.

The president stood before a country gloomy over unemployment in double digits and federal deficits soaring to a record $1.4 trillion. He also faces a Democratic Party increasingly concerned about the fallen standing of a president they hoped would lead them through this fall's midterm elections.

He aimed beyond the usual presidential laundry list for a more cohesive, plain-spoken narrative, hoping to tell his presidency's story - looking forward and back - in a way that would rekindle the energy of his historic election. The president clearly had a lot to say, as aides worked to whittle down the speech and still expected it to run as much as 75 minutes, an extraordinary length that could tax viewers' patience and rival any State of the Union since the Clinton era.

Obama acknowledged missteps since taking office in explaining his agenda and connecting with voters. At the same time, he offered an unapologetic defense of pursuing the same agenda on which he won. That includes the health care overhaul, as well as an aggressive approach to global warming, sweeping changes to address the millions of illegal immigrants and radical reforms of how Wall Street is regulated and children are educated.

Obama urged lawmakers to enact far-reaching health care legislation rather than a smaller-bore solution - though it's not clear there is a viable path for this in Congress.

"By now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics," he said, prompting laughter. "This is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. . . . Here's what I ask of Congress, though: Do not walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people." In a remarkable shift from past addresses, and notable for a president whose candidacy first caught fire over Iraq war opposition, foreign policy is taking a relative backseat.

The section came behind the economy and was largely devoid of new policy. Obama provided an update on the Afghanistan escalation he just ordered, looked ahead to the end of U.S. combat in Iraq and his hosting of an international nuclear weapons summit, and promised an aggressive fight against terrorists.

In a signal the Obama team considers itself at a turning point, it is reverting to techniques that successfully galvanized the grass roots during his campaign.

Obama's political arm-in-waiting, Obama for America, which has assumed a low profile since his election, texted watch-party information to supporters. The White House also solicited follow-up questions on - saying Obama will answer them online next week.

The president kept to the tradition of taking his themes on the road. He will travel to Florida on Thursday to announce $8 billion for high-speed rail development, to Maryland on Friday to speak to a House Republican retreat, and to New Hampshire Tuesday for a jobs-focused event. Cabinet officials were fanning out too.

On Monday, Obama's priorities get another burst of attention, as he submits them in detail to Congress in his 2011 budget request.

With AP

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>> Full transcript of the State of the Union Address
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>> Complete coverage: Obama's 2010 State of the Union address

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