Before Tuesday night, one had to wonder how the president was going to manage pulling off the word “strong” in his third State of the Union address in this trying economy. But he managed to do so last night and in a convincing way for most people watching.
In a little over an hour, the president laid out some specific policy themes, something that is rarely offered in state of the Union speeches. And that is what needed to be delivered. Not surprisingly, most of it struck a populist tone encompassing ideas about equality and fairness, with much of it centered around people and government solutions.
But what he did differently, compared to his last two SOTUs, was skip on the broad, general ideas of a plan. Last night, he focused specifically on concrete concerns and issues affecting everyday Americans, which played well and could be understood by average folks out there.
Who can be mad at a proposal to deny tax benefits to those who outsource American jobs? “If you’re a high-tech manufacturer, we should double the tax deduction you get for making products here,” Obama stated. That is a message that all from any party should be able to agree on.
Sounds good and gravy, right? On taxes, “if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98 percent of American families, your taxes shouldn’t go up.” Both parties should be able to coalesce around that at least.
Secondly, as I proposed in my pre-State of the Union piece, the President did in fact explain what he and his administration have precisely done and how much differently from the previous administration.
He also got in a few political responses to things the GOP presidential candidates have been saying on the trail to undercut his success.
“Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” he exclaimed, clearly taking a jab back at Republican primary candidates who’ve criticized the President for removing troops out of Iraq. “That’s not the message we get from leaders around the world, all of whom are eager to work with us. That’s not how people feel from Tokyo to Berlin; from Cape Town to Rio; where opinions of America are higher than they’ve been in years.”
And to incessant Republican calls that government is a hindrance to progress and is not part of the solution, Obama went out of his way to mention that federal government funding of research has led to many of the country’s advancement in cancer research and technology innovation.
Finally, the speech was a call to action. On several occasions, he challenged his Republican opposition in Congress to get with Democrats and present bills that will address the mortgage crisis. Obama asked Congress to present bills that eliminated burdensome regulations but provided tax incentives for small business. He asked they send him bills to ban insider trading by Congressional lawmakers and cut off the influence of lobbyists.
“Help manufacturers eliminate energy waste in their factories and give businesses incentives to upgrade their buildings.” Obama said. “Their energy bills will be $100 billion lower over the next decade, and America will have less pollution, more manufacturing, and more jobs for construction workers who need them. Send me a bill that creates these jobs.”
One big omission in the speech was any discussion on the looming budget cuts and deficit reduction. With the failure of the debt Super Committee and the unlikelihood of the conference committee being able to figure out how to extend the payroll tax holiday through the end of the year, there may have been room to ready the country for the forthcoming cuts so they are not blindsided.
Congressional Black Caucus chairman Emanuel Cleaver’s supportive response to the State of the Union mentioned GOP’s “reckless” elimination of “vital programs like job training, education, and health care for millions of hardworking American families is not a roadmap to getting our economy back on track,” but those cuts were not referenced in the SOTU itself.
Even with that oversight, it’s difficult to argue against many of the practical themes addressed throughout the speech. The GOP response by Indian Governor Mitch Daniels was tempered and reasonable, as he demanded that Republicans not be blamed for the gridlock in Congress. Daniels presented common areas of agreement with the president, perhaps signaling that if all parties do in fact put aside partisan bickering, more could be done to get the nation and the economy moving again.
Indeed, the SOTU’s ending was a rallying cry for unity and “getting each other’s back.” So as the fact checkers scamper to release notes verifying the accuracy of everything said, the impact of the SOTU may have already had its effect of galvanizing those who are more likely to agree with last night’s themes anyway. It was part campaign speech, part score card and part “blueprint.” A solid B effort overall. In this contentious political climate and economy, that’s equivalent to an A.