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Obama gets unity on principles

WASHINGTON, Feb 25 – In an hour packed with cheers, standing ovations, a little laughter and a handful of jeers, Barack Obama got a taste of the pitched political battles yet to come in his young presidency.

Just five weeks after taking office, Obama’s debut speech to a joint session of the US Congress brought the packed chamber to its feet more than 30 times but also highlighted deep divisions between Republicans and his Democrats.

They found raucous common ground on the symbolic — applauding the hero pilot who landed his plane in the Hudson River last month, or First Lady Michelle Obama’s arrival — and the uncontroversial — vows to support US troops in harm’s way and to ensure the survival of a recast US auto industry.

The swiftest standing ovation and loudest applause seemed to come when the president admonished youngsters that dropping out of high school was "not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country."

And laughter spread without regard for party when Obama said he had tasked scrappy Vice President Joe Biden with oversight of trillion dollar rescue packages because "Nobody messes with Joe."

But only Democrats rose, clapped and cheered when he celebrated two early victories — a 787-billion-dollar economic stimulus bill and legislation broadening healthcare for children — won without much Republican support.

Republicans, who charge the stimulus is bloated and wasteful and will swell a deficit already set to soar above one trillion dollars, got to their feet and cheered, one of them calling out "now we’re talking," when Obama promised not to spend so much that future generations inherit "a debt they cannot pay."

Democrats got their revenge with the very next sentence, which opened with a reference to "the deficit we inherited" — a reference to predecessor George W. Bush.

But when Obama trumpeted that the stimulus package was free of wasteful pet projects, Republicans booed, laughed, and loudly moaned "no!" as the president raised his voice to cover the heckling.

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And some called out "you’re right" and chuckled when Obama predicted that his plans to let Bush’s tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans expire would meet with charges that he was imposing a massive tax hike on the US public.

Obama’s former White House rival, Senator John McCain, stood when his fellow Republicans stood and clapped when they clapped, and it was not clear whether he had shared a handshake with the president.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom Obama defeated in the Democratic primaries, smiled and applauded when he pledged to carry out health care reform — a task she attempted and failed as first lady 16 years ago.

Despite pockets of scepticism and vocal opposition, Obama remained the political rock star that he has been since he became the first black US president on January 20.

It took at least five full minutes of shaking hands, back-slapping, and a few hugs for him to get the short distance to the dais, while supporters and opponents crushed forward, some with cell phone cameras in hand.

On his way out, it was the same manic scene as Republicans joined Democrats in trying to get one of the dozen or so autographs he signed on copies of his prepared remarks.

But if Obama was a rock star, he was not the only one: Before he even arrived, the House chamber erupted in applause for Chesley Sullenberger, the USAirways pilot who safely splash-landed his passenger jet into the Hudson River with 155 on board.

"Sully," invited to watch the speech from the visitors’ gallery above the debate floor, stood and waved to the crowd, mouthing "thank you" with his hand over his heart.

Michelle Obama, too, drew applause and every eye in the room when she entered.

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And the lawmakers gave a hugely warm welcome to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer in early February, with many representatives and senators making their way through the crowd before the speech to give her a handshake, or a hug or a kiss.


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