President Obama will give his second State of the Union address this Tuesday, and it seems like a good time to break my hiatus from this blog to comment ahead of his speech. The early indications are that he will focus on jobs and the economy, while calling for a more “united” citizenry and more responsible approach to government spending. Though he is not expected to endorse the deficit reduction plan proposed by the panel he created.
According to the NYT article linked to above, Obama will focus on innovation, education, infrastructure, deficit reduction and reforming government as the keys to ensuring America’s future prosperity. I am guessing he will make a push yet again for increased light rail construction and building more energy-efficient homes, cars and buildings, which cover some aspects of the innovation and infrastructure points. But I am more interested in what he will have to say regarding education, deficit reduction and reforming government.
While I am okay with Obama not giving a full endorsement of the Bipartisan Deficit Reduction Plan, I do hope he spends some time talking about the difficult choices represented in that proposal and the need to take them seriously. He needs to get out in front of the Republicans as being more serious about the deficit before the usual “tax-and-spend liberal” narrative ratchets up and he’s playing catch-up, as has been much of the case throughout his presidency (in regards to the media narrative). To do this, he must lend credence (to some degree) to that bipartisan plan, even if some of the cuts and provisions outlined in it are not popular amongst liberals.
If Obama couples deficit reduction with reforming government to make it more efficient and effective, he will have a winner. The argument about “big” vs. “limited” government is irrelevant: government is already big and Republicans have done more than their fair share to make it so. The real issue is how well the government works for us and what its priorities are.
For decades economic policy has centered around lowering taxes to spur economic growth, which both parties have been complicit in but has undoubtedly been the preferred policy of the Republicans. But all that policy has done is create a huge disparity in wealth and income and helped increase our budget deficit to an astonishing $14 trillion. The notion that lowering taxes on the wealthy benefits the rest of us cannot be true if we’ve continued to lower taxes and yet more people find themselves living in poverty, more wealth is concentrated at the top, and wages have remained stagnant (Slate has a great series on this issue which you can find here). Obama should call for a simplified tax code that eliminates needless loopholes and an end to the Bush-era tax cuts once they expire in 2012 (I am disappointed he helped extend the cuts to the wealthy; goes back to an inability to dominate the narrative).
And while I would like to see Obama “call-out” the Republicans for their intransigence the past two years, I suspect he will portray himself as the “moderate” in the room, which the blogosphere is claiming to be a return to Clinton’s triangulation strategy in 1994. Politically it makes sense, but if the serious issues we face are going to be addressed in an equally serious way, he may need to eschew the political game and fight to take the role of government in a new direction. He needs to defend the need for health care and education reform, he needs to question the role our military plays in foreign affairs, he needs to address why income inequality can ultimately doom us, he needs to question why Republicans are more interested in taking laws off the book then drafting new and better ones (see health care repeal and coming soon to a political theater near you, repeal of the Clean Air Act), and he needs to question almost any major government spending that does not produce results (ahem, drug war).
He will not do these things, at least not in this speech. Probably not the time to do so. But I hope he starts to discuss these things if for no other reason than to mobilize the left ahead of 2012. Time will tell if he is actually serious about reshaping this country’s future and how much he is willing to risk to get it done. Mr. President, you are on the clock.