Tampa, FL (USA Today) -- President Obama's populist-flavored State of the Union Address on Monday night and the harsh reaction of Republican leaders to it reflect more than Washington's typical partisan divide.
Their sharply divergent views about the causes of the country's problems and the solutions to them are part of the most fundamental debate in a generation or more, perhaps even since the New Deal era, over what the government can and should do at a time of economic pain.
That deep disagreement isn't likely to be narrowed before November.
The gulf between the two sides and the capital's partisan vitriol undercut the traditional role of the State of the Union - that is, as an account of the legislative priorities the president will pursue this year. Instead, with limited prospects of major legislation passing, the speech and the reaction are election-year arguments that each side hopes will persuade voters to endorse its view of the world.
In his address to a joint session of Congress, Obama portrayed the Republicans as advocates of what he has called "you're-on-your-own economics," determined to protect the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.
"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," Obama declared, "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."
"No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others," Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said in the formal Republican response. "We Americans are all in the same boat."
Earlier in the day, at an overflow rally in Sarasota, Fla., GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich derided Obama as "a Saul Alinsky radical," a reference to an iconic Chicago community organizer. Mitt Romney, campaigning here in front of a banner that said "Obama isn't working," described the president as an economic naif who wants to transform the United States into "a European-style social welfare state."
The task for a first-term president delivering his fourth-year State of the Union always requires striking a delicate rhetorical balance, especially at a time of travail, between bragging about achievements and acknowledging setbacks. In his 1996 address - after his party suffered historic losses in the 1994 midterms -President Clinton said "the era of big government is over," drawing more applause from Republicans than fellow Democrats.
In his 2004 State of the Union, President George W. Bush focused in large part on the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, saying "America is on the offensive" against terrorists and declaring victory over Saddam Hussein. "The people in Iraq are free," he said.
This time, Obama blamed the nation's woes on the policies of his predecessors.
"Long before the recession, jobs and manufacturing began leaving our shores," he said. "Folks at the top saw their income rise like never before, but most hardworking Americans struggled with costs that were growing, paychecks that weren't and personal debt that kept piling up. In 2008, the house of cards collapsed."
(That would be before he was inaugurated in January 2009.)
Romney blamed the president's own policies for making "these troubled times last longer," mentioning in particular Obama's signature health care overhaul - "a trillion-dollar entitlement we don't want and can't afford" - and curbs on domestic energy production.
GOP candidates respond
Here's what the Republican presidential contenders said Tuesday about President Obama and the State of the Union.
Rep. Ron Paul did not make public appearances Tuesday.
Mitt Romney: "Tonight will mark another chapter in the misguided policies of the last three years, and the failed leadership of one man. But Americans know that our future is brighter and better than these troubled times."
Newt Gingrich: "A friend of mine says, 'He has shifted from Yes We Can to Why We Couldn't.' "
Rick Santorum: "You are going to hear a bunch of flowery rhetoric and all this stuff about all the things he has done. But what he has done? He has grown the tax burden on the American public through Obamacare, through Dodd-Frank [Wall Street overhaul law] and through other bills. He has grown the size and scale of government to an unprecedented level. He has grown the deficit in this country to absolutely immoral lengths."
When it comes to what to do now, Obama proposed tax changes to encourage manufacturing jobs, steps to encourage natural-gas production, and the use of half of the "peace dividend" from winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to invest in infrastructure. He also embraced the principle that millionaires and billionaires should have to pay an effective income-tax rate of 30%.
Speaking for the Republicans, Daniels called for a simpler tax system and "a pause in the mindless piling-on of expensive new regulations that devour dollars that otherwise could be used to hire somebody." He derided what he called "the extremism that stifles the development of homegrown energy, or cancels a perfectly safe pipeline that would employ tens of thousands."
That was a reference to Obama's decision against allowing the Keystone XL pipeline to be built to carry oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. To underscore the point, House Speaker John Boehner, invited three officials from energy companies affected by the decision to sit in the House gallery.
Sitting with Michelle Obama was billionaire investor Warren Buffett's secretary, Debbie Bosanek, to personify the president's call for "the Buffett rule," aiming to make the wealthy pay tax rates higher than their employees who make much less.
The image of the two sides on opposite sides of the aisle may no longer be adequate to illustrate their divide.
Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff says they seem to be operating in separate worlds. "The whole debate has a men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus feel to it," he says, raising questions about realities each side overlooks.
"The debate over the role of government in our economy is as acrimonious as it's been since the 1930s," reflecting the severity of the Great Recession, says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "It is such a fundamental debate, it needs to be ultimately decided by the American people on Election Day."