WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama offered a smorgasbord of Republican-friendly proposals in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday that could test the willingness of his political rivals to compromise ahead of the 2012 White House election.
Acknowledging the realities of divided government, Obama endorsed several ideas long favored by Republicans -- a reduction in corporate tax rates, a simplification of the tax code, an end to pet spending projects by lawmakers called earmarks and consolidation of the federal government.
Obama agreed with Republicans on the need to rein in spending, and proposed a five-year freeze on a portion of domestic spending -- although he stopped far short of the heavy cuts Republicans have demanded.
Republicans seized control of the House of Representatives in elections last November and their willingness -- or not -- to embrace those ideas could be an early sign of the level of cooperation between the parties in the months ahead.
"Republicans have a responsibility to work with us to create jobs instead of wasting time with pointless political stunts," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said after the speech.
Obama has moved to the center since November in a bid for the independent support that shifted away from Democrats in the congressional elections. His approval ratings have rebounded slightly to above 50 percent.
But he drew several stark political lines in Tuesday's speech that are certain to spark new clashes with Republicans. He renewed his opposition to a permanent extension of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, called for another effort on immigration reform and warned against broad changes in his healthcare overhaul.
Republicans were unimpressed by Obama's proposal to freeze non-security discretionary spending for five years, which would cut the deficit by $400 billion over 10 years.
"I like the fact that he wants to do something about spending. However, freezing government spending for five years at the increased levels of the last two years is really not enough," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said.
Republicans also were skeptical they were seeing a new Obama. When he called for investment in job-creating research and education, Republicans heard the words "big spender."
"When the president says 'investment' he means bigger federal government and higher taxes," said Republican Senator Jim DeMint, a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement that has pushed for lower spending and reduced government.
CHANGE IN TONE, BUT NOT POLICY
Representative Pete Sessions, who runs the House Republican campaign committee, said Obama had changed his tone "but it's still unclear when he will offer the change in his policies that voters asked for on Election Day."
The speech's bipartisan tone was matched by the mood in Congress, where some members ditched their traditional partisan seating arrangements to sit together regardless of party after the Arizona shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Although the motives of the suspect are not known, the shooting earlier this month, in which six people were killed, prompted many calls for a more civil tone in national politics.
"What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow," Obama told Congress.
Obama, who is gearing up to formally open his re-election run in the next few months, continued the shift to the center that he started after the November election.
That shift helped him forge a tax deal with Republicans, repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military and ratification of a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia during the final days of the old Congress in December.
Those moves, along with his response to the Arizona shooting and growing public confidence in the economy, helped push his approval ratings up in recent weeks.
"He isn't just moving towards the middle, he is leaping there," said Paul Sracic, chairman of the political science department at Youngstown State University in Ohio. "Interestingly enough, in moving right he may be marginalizing the Tea Party movement."
But the move to the middle is unlikely to stave off looming battles with Republicans on ways to shrink the budget deficit and rein in spending.
Obama, who has appealed to the business community by bringing in more industry-friendly economic advisers and pledging to trim regulations, offered more olive branches to business leaders.
He pledged to fulfill a longtime Republican goal, reducing the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years, but said he would pay for the reduction by closing tax loopholes -- the sort of vague promise that leaves plenty of room for interpretation.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said politics should not get in the way of progress.
"The U.S. Chamber will work with anyone who shares our goals and we don't care who gets the credit," he said.
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