President Obama can’t be faulted for failing to come up with ideas to improve the country and the lives of average citizens in his State of the Union speech this week.
Upgrading the nation’s decaying bridges, manufacturing incentives, paycheck equity, raising the minimum wage — all commendable goals designed to meet the president’s goal of bolstering the middle class. And who could possibly oppose universal access to pre-kindergarten?
But if the State of the Union speech is a chance for the president to present a grand vision for the country to move forward and come to terms with hard realities, the occasion has to be counted as a missed opportunity.
The biggest threat to the nation’s prosperity and political viability is the ballooning national debt and the menace of endless deficit spending, yet the president offered only “modest reforms” to Medicare — minus the specifics — and closing loopholes in the tax code. Entitlements require more than tinkering. And even though reforming the tax code is necessary in order to increase revenue and achieve balanced deficit reduction, it won’t be easy and maybe not doable at all in the current climate of political gridlock.
On both issues, the president was vague on specifics, and less than candid on how much sacrifice is needed to get the job done.
Mr. Obama said the cuts and revenue increases already enacted during his first term will reduce the projected deficit by about $2.5 trillion, or well more than half of the $4 trillion that his own deficit reduction commission recommended in November of 2010 as the bare minimum required to stabilize the nation’s finances. But the meter’s been running ever since, and now that figure has ballooned to $6 trillion, so the amount needed to put the nation’s accounts into balance is significantly greater.
It is also hard to imagine that the programs he put forward, such as universal pre-k access for toddlers, can be achieved without spending more federal money, even those designed as private-public partnerships.
And how does he plan to get all this done?
Offering a set of worthy goals to Congress in a national speech is all well and good, but leadership requires a plan to get the job done and Republicans aren’t likely to salute and obey just because the president says these are good ideas, as Sen. Marco Rubio made clear in his televised response.
The Miami senator performed capably in the high-pressure job of responding to the president, but he, too, was long on principles and ideas and short on specifics. Mr. Rubio, it’s worth remembering, is still a freshman member of the Senate, barely two years in office, and the party has thrown him into the deep end of the political pool.
Commendably, Mr. Rubio is helping to lead his party toward agreement on comprehensive immigration reform.
Mr. Rubio’s comments on that topic may have provided the best news of the evening, showing that Democrats and Republicans are finally singing off the same page, even if they’re not fully in harmony yet on issues such as enforcement and the details of a path to citizenship.
The most uplifting part of the evening came at the end of Mr. Obama’s speech, when his plea that victims of gun violence “deserve a vote” echoed throughout the chamber as former Rep. Gabby Giffords joined in.
Making progress on gun control may be an even greater challenge than fixing the debt — but with leadership and compromise, neither is insurmountable.