Rangel, Engel and two different takes on Obama’s State of the Union

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Charlie Rangel. ()
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On Tuesday night, in his fourth State of the Union address and his first big speech of 2012, President Obama laid out a platform of reduced income inequality, increased oversight of the financial industry and expanded domestic production of energy.

I asked two members of the New York delegation from the president's own party to critique the speech. One thought it was a great case for Obama's re-election; the other said it wasn't really a "political" speech at all.

"I think this is the opening salvo in his re-election campaign," said Representative Eliot Engel of the Bronx.

"I think he did a very good job," Engel said. "A president in his fourth year, running for re-election, wants to show he is someone who can effectively lead the country and has a vision about what direction they're going to go."

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In this case, the president's vision consisted of a laundry list of executive orders and policy proposals designed to show what he himself has done for the average voter, and what he would like Congress to do.

The refrain was "send me a bill," which the president used in reference to creating green jobs, banning insider trading in Congress, and crafting a path to citizenship for immigrants.

"It wasn't the most, what's the word, powerful or intense speech I've heard in a State of the Union," said Engel, "but I thought it was a good speech for the time America is in and the problems America faces. And a good speech to say to the American people, my vision is a good vision."

While the president has pledged to run against the obstructionism of the Republican-held House, he mostly avoided explicitly partisan attacks. Engel called it a "unity speech."

"I don't think they can find a way to call that speech political," said Charlie Rangel. "I really don't."

"I was so afraid that what the pundits said was going to be true because once you get locked into the campaign, it's impossible to get anything done," he said. "And I thought the president might fall for that because these people had said their prime motivation was ... to beat Obama."

But Rangel said he saw it less as a campaign speech than a call for Americans to rally behind the president's agenda and press Congress to act this year.

"I think it was exciting," Rangel said. "He left the door open and ... we leave this in the hands of the American people. I think it's abundantly clear that people should not have to wait until the election."

But the election certainly hung as a backdrop, as Obama talked about the urgent need for wealthy Americans to pay more in taxes, just after one of his Republican rivals, Mitt Romney, released his own returns, showing he pays an effective federal tax rate just under 14 percent.

Engel said Romney's release underscored the president's point.

"I don't think he had to mention Mitt Romney, I think everybody was thinking about it," said Engel, who called Romney a "poster child for unfair taxation in this country."

Engel was happy to hear Israel mentioned, along with the president's "unequivocally" hard line on Iran, and that the speech burnished Obama's surprising successes in foreign policy.

"I think he gave the American people a reason to re-elect him and that's what he set about to do," Engel said.