Two domestic concerns towered above all others as President Barack Obama addressed a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night on the state of the union. One was stubbornly slow economic growth. The other was the long-term threat to prosperity posed by the structural mismatch between the federal government’s projected revenue and its spending commitments. A successful second term for Obama will require both credible proposals for overcoming those related challenges and the determination to carry them through.
The president addressed the deficit and debt first, and at some length. This was fitting, giving that the most pressing piece of business facing Washington is what to do about the impending $85 billion across-the-board spending cut. He was forthright in declaring that this so-called sequester threatens the military as well as domestic programs. But his plan to avoid it basically repeated the offer of a “balanced approach” — unspecified tax hikes and spending cuts — which Republicans have already rejected.
Somewhat more substantively, he called for a larger deficit-reduction deal built around loophole-closing tax reform and what he called “modest” reforms to Medicare and entitlements. In an apparent effort to rally Democrats to this cause, he called on “those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare” to “embrace” reform.
Yet in promising the same amount of Medicare savings as the Simpson-Bowles commission proposed, Obama did not mention that this would be a mere $341 billion over 10 years. All told, he envisions shaving an additional $1.5 trillion off projected deficits over 10 years, which would leave the national debt at a historically aberrant 70-odd percent of gross domestic product.
As for raising the economy’s growth potential, the president was more persuasive. His emphasis on reforming the tangled and counterproductive corporate tax code was especially welcome and relatively likely to draw GOP support. He offered several promising ideas on education, including a promise of “high-quality preschool” for all children, though how that would square with his promise not to increase the deficit by a single dime went unexplained.
Obama pressed his case for reform of immigration laws and for action to slow global warming — and, in especially moving terms, tougher gun laws. In each case, there may be measures he can take through executive action, but new laws will be needed for substantial progress.
Obama was right when he pointed to the grieving relatives of gun-violence victims and insisted, “They deserve a vote.”
The Washington Post (Feb. 14)