The State of the Union Speech

The State of the Union speech, during an election year and in front of a divided Congress, is an impossible speech to give. On the one hand, the President needed to give a unifying speech, but on the other, he has to set the framework for the upcoming session of Congress and, even more, the upcoming election. President Obama effectively balanced those two assignments last night.

The president began and concluded his speech by invoking the men and women of the armed forces, noting that for them, it doesn’t matter whether someone is a Republican or a Democrat, nor who gets individual credit for the success of the team, but instead focus only on the mission before them. Rhetorically this works, especially at a time when the president’s political opponents have characterized themselves principally by their intransigence. The analogy, of course, is a false one: the military is capable of such a mission-oriented approach precisely because it is not politicized. And, conversely, our politics is happily more cantankerous than is the case in countries where the government actually is in the hands of the military and governed by that unvocal sense of mission. But, false or not, the analogy worked bringing both sides of the chamber to its feet.

The centerpiece of the speech was this: “We can settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by 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.” Coming on the same day that GOP contender Mitt Romney released his tax returns, proving just how unfair the tax system is and becoming the personification of the 1%, Mr. Obama’s call for a new equivalent of the alternative minimum tax in which millionaires pay at least 30% of their income in taxes was a genuinely new and genuinely fine idea. The proposal does not amount to “class warfare” as his critics charge. The current tax code, which allowed Mr. Romney to pay less than half the rate that most middle class families paid last year, abets the growing income inequality in the nation. It is the failure to address that growing inequality that could lead to class warfare, not the President’s common sense approach to diminishing it.

The proposals for more equitably taxing the rich were not the only ones aimed at swaying independent voters to return to the Obama fold. The President endorsed revamping the nation’s job retraining programs, and although he did not mention it, Romney and Net Gingrich had both called for a similar measure in their debate the preceding night. Indeed, Mr. Obama called attention to the kind of public-private partnerships that non-ideological voters especially like, singling out a woman from North Carolina who had benefited from just such a program and who was seated at the First Lady’s left for the speech.

The president could have hit a trifecta had he finished this section of his speech by explicitly defending the role of government in helping to get Americans back to work. Despite the histrionic claims that Obama is a socialist, which he is not, not even a little bit, Obama understands that sometimes there are little steps the government can take that make it much easier for the private sector to unleash its job-creating potential. I wish he had brought that out a bit more. His speech did not announce any huge new government spending programs. He needed to provide a political frame around the several smaller proposals he did make: Government can help, it must help, and, as he explained earlier in the speech when discussing the bailout of the auto industry, such help can be decisive for the private sector and the jobs it creates.

Indeed, in one key part of the speech, Obama addressed an issue that many of us have seen in terms of justice and presented it in terms of economic performance: the DREAM Act. This was smart politics, although I would have liked a bit more focus on the injustice of our current immigration system. Nonetheless, I suspect the president’s political consultants recognized that Republican opposition to the DREAM Act is the kind of thing that can be used to exemplify the practical downside of their ideological commitments. As the president explained, these young people, brought to this country when they were so young they had no say in the matter, can either remain under the radar screen of our society or go to college and become productive members of that society. The Republican stupidity on immigration is not only unfair, it stifles a potential source of economic growth for us all. Undocumented students in college should be encouraged to study, not to worry about looking over their shoulders to see if the immigration police are coming.

Overall, the speech was a fine one despite the occasional missed opportunity. And, in his sunny, even Reaganesque, optimism and still youthful vigor, the President could not have contrasted more acutely with the Republican respondent, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. Daniels was all gloom and doom. America is threatened by a “Niagara of debt.” He could not muster a smile. If establishment Republicans thought that he was the savior of their party, they need to reacquaint themselves with the career of Sen. Robert Taft, a man like Daniels of obvious integrity, but whose stern countenance and “eat your spinach” approach to policy perpetually kept him from achieving his national political aspirations.

The forthcoming session of Congress will be a strange one. No one thinks much will be accomplished. Normally, a president’s failure to get his proposals enacted would be sufficient to question his political skills and damage his prospects. But, you only had to watch the scowling face of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor throughout the night to realize that Obama is unlikely to pay a price for political inaction in Washington. Like Bill Clinton, Obama has been blest with political opponents who lend themselves to self-caricature. But, the president will need a more clearly defined program for his re-election bid, and must engage the entire Democratic Party and all of its congressional candidates to support it, if he hopes to win enough seats in Congress to improve any post-election prospects of achieving his policy goals. The political challenge for the president, and one which he advanced a bit, but only a bit, last night, is not to win re-election next November but to win a mandate to achieve some specific policy objectives in a second term.

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