President Barack Obama’s state-of-the-union speech was as much a liberal manifesto as I’ve heard in decades. Not surprising then that so many of the talking heads take the speech as evidence that Obama is trying to move the American center to the left in much the way Ronald Reagan moved it decades ago to the right.
There were the President’s traditional themes of energy, education and infrastructure. But he went on from there, talking about climate change, universal free pre-school, raising tax revenues (this time through closing loopholes and deductions, especially for corporations and the wealthy), voting rights, supporting basic research investments, raising the minimum wage, and, most emotionally, gun control. He even spoke about eradicating extreme poverty worldwide, albeit “with out allies.” No wonder people chuckled when he said “nothing will add a dime to the deficit.” It warmed a progressive’s heart, even while the President would be lucky to get a third to a half of what he would like.
But the speech was not a utopian fantasy. For one thing, there were a few sleights of hand. He crowed about cutting in half the number of U.S. military to be left in Afghanistan a year from now. But that number will still be the same or slightly more than when he took office in 2009.
He acknowledged that deficit reduction had to be part of the national agenda but may have lowballed (at $1.5 trillion) the amount that still needs to be cut ($2.4 trillion, according to former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin.
The President also made it a point to identify areas of agreement with the GOP (if only they could put national interest above party.) He said we need not a bigger government but a smarter one “that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.” The President emphasized the need for bipartisanship, reminding listeners how the cap-and-trade part of his climate change strategy was a market-based approach once favored by John McCain. How he and Mitt Romney agreed on linking minimum wages to cost of living. How lawful gun owners do favor better background checks. How his own comprehensive approach to immigration had long found support among many Republicans. How his effort to improve the voting process will be headed by lawyer for both his and Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign.
Also decidedly centrist, the President called for greater accountability in education, saying federal aid will be determined by affordability and value. And his willingness to tackle Medicare reform (the “biggest threat” to future financial stability) – promising cuts equivalent to those in Simpson-Bowles – will surely agitate liberals in Congress, including several in the Massachusetts delegation, who may not be assuaged by the President’s pledge to “keep the promises we’ve already made.”
Despite the hype around any state of the union address, will any of this matter? Senate Republicans’ blocking of Defense Department nominee Chuck Hegel is a worrisome sign that any plea for bipartisanship may well fall on deaf ears. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time a President’s state-of-the-union agenda became a futile wish list.
The New York Times has charted the percentage of SOTU addresses that became reality over the past 50 years. The most successful was Lyndon Johnson. His success rate was 55 percent, and that was with Democrats controlling both sides of Congress and the emotional impetus of the Kennedy assassination behind issue like civil rights, Medicare and education. We can’t expect as much action on the Obama agenda. Even the American people’s disgust with gridlock may not be enough to spur significant program advances in this second Obama administration.
I welcome your comments in the section below.