After National Journal scooped the White House by releasing the entire State of the Union address, the White House reluctantly followed suit.
The address is basically as advertised. Obama will start with a nod to Gabby Giffords and the contentious debates about the past couple years. But he connects the tragedy in Tucson to the need to come together and connect a larger story.
But there’s a reason the tragedy in Tucson gave us pause. Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater – something more consequential than party or political preference.
We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.
Much of tonight is about a plan to “win the future” – ironically the buzzword that Newt Gingrich frequently has used in the title of a book. This is a relentlessly optimistic, even jingoistic, speech about how America can stay on top in the future. He will say that “the world has changed” and He highlights “five pillars” for the future that are critical, in Obama’s view, to the economy. These are innovation, education, infrastructure, budget deficit, government reform. All of this is part of the “Sputnik moment” to react to competition from overseas and make America a leader again. I join this call for a Sputnik moment by endorsing better data collection of radio-signal distribution in the ionosphere. What, have we all forgotten the real meaning of Sputnik?
On a more serious note, there’s a serious question as to whether this is the real economic problem America faces, and not one about unemployment, falling wages, and corporate leverage. This feels like a speech someone would give at Davos, not the head of a country which hasn’t seen a wage increase in over a decade.
On innovation, the President highlights biomedical research, information technology, and particularly renewable energy. In one of the few concrete proposals in the speech, the President endorses an aggressive “clean energy standard” of getting 80% of electricty from clean energy sources by 2035. However, to understand that, you have to know that a “clean energy standard” and a “renewable energy standard” are quite different. Clean energy, in this reading, includes nuclear, natural gas, and so-called “clean coal.”
On education, the President basically touts Race to the Top (which he calls “the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation”) as a model for the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind. He does say that “it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect” and urges students to become teachers, but Race to the Top, of course, gives states a lot more tools to fire teachers (but only the “bad” ones, because they’re ranked by a computer on definitive criteria, right?) and send money to profit-maximizing charter schools.
In that section, the President offers a legitimate defense of the DREAM Act, though the chances for the passage of that is suspect.
On infrastructure, the President will talk about “rebuilding America,” and give 80% of America access to high-speed rail in 25 years, as well as offering high-speed Internet access to 98% of America within 5 years.
To pay for these investments, Obama will call for eliminating tax loopholes that benefit corporations. This also factors in as part of an overall corporate tax reform that would eliminate tax expenditures while lowering the statutory corporate tax rate. Advisors have said that the goal is to end up revenue-neutral in that exchange. The President will nod at a larger tax reform for individual rates as well.
The President will reiterate the need for corporate-written trade agreements like the one with South Korea. He will refer to the “streamlining” of regulations, while offering a defense of regulations itself. And he will vow not to eliminate his health care law, while giving a small olive branch on wanting to change the 1099 reporting requirement.
Then there’s the section on the budget and spending, which will probably be the only section where there will be actual movement in the Congress this year. President Obama will call for a five-year spending freeze of non-security discretionary spending, basically a three-year extension of the three-year freeze from last year’s State of the Union. This “will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president,” according to Obama. He says that, while he’s willing to make tough decisions on cuts, “let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.” Clearly he would protect what he sees as needed investments in innovation and education and infrastructure, too.
But Obama acknowledges that non-security discretionary spending comprises about 1/6 of the budget. Here’s the key section on the rest:
The bipartisan Fiscal Commission I created last year made this crystal clear. I don’t agree with all their proposals, but they made important progress. And their conclusion is that the only way to tackle our deficit is to cut excessive spending wherever we find it – in domestic spending, defense spending, health care spending, and spending through tax breaks and loopholes.
This means further reducing health care costs, including programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which are the single biggest contributor to our long-term deficit. Health insurance reform will slow these rising costs, which is part of why nonpartisan economists have said that repealing the health care law would add a quarter of a trillion dollars to our deficit. Still, I’m willing to look at other ideas to bring down costs, including one that Republicans suggested last year: medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits.
To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations. And we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.
And if we truly care about our deficit, we simply cannot afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. Before we take money away from our schools, or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break.
MedMal is just a fig leaf, almost entirely useless. The big news here, I think, is that he says that the Social Security solution must happen “without slashing benefits for future generations.” That’s somewhat new rhetoric.
Then there’s a section on reorganizing government, which is right out of the Clinton-Gore years. On foreign policy, the President will say “the Iraq War is coming to an end” and troops will leave at the end of the year. He will say, without much conviction I assume, that “this July, we will begin to bring our troops home” from Afghanistan, when that is plainly not the case. He will acknowledge recent events in South Sudan and Tunisia, which I find to be a nice touch. “The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”
The President will affirm that the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell will be certified this year. And he’ll call on colleges to open their doors to military recruiters and ROTC, as a result.
Then there’s a part at the end about how America does “big things.” I’d like to see the evidence of that in the present day.
The two huge omissions in the speech: 1) gun control, just weeks after the Tuscon shooting, 2) foreclosures, which are literally not mentioned anywhere. We’ve had 300,000 foreclosures a month for the last 20 months, as many as 2 million people will lose their homes this year, many on faulty documents, and it’s just been written out of history. I guess “let’s pretend it’s not a problem” is the new option.