President Barack Obama’s far-reaching State of the Union speech Tuesday is best thought of as a framework for the political dialogue that he hopes will shape the remainder of his term, the campaign to succeed him and, indeed, his legacy.
Buoyed by some economic and political tides that seemed close to impossible as recently as two months ago, Obama used his platform to propose tax changes, workplace reforms and college-access ideas — all aimed at addressing a “middle class economics” to boost opportunities for impoverished and working-class Americans. He challenged Congress on the minimum wage and climate change. And he appealed to members of Congress on a personal level, asking for “a better politics.”
The president understands that his bold tax plan and other economic proposals will go nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congress. But he is banking that they will be noticed by the American public and form the basis of an economic agenda for a nation done with recession and ready to hit the accelerator.
We would not subscribe to each and every one of the ideas the White House has put forth in the last few days. The idea of taxing earnings on investments in certain types of college savings accounts, for example, would dampen the incentive for families to put money aside for higher education. Obama would do better to suggest ways for lower-income families to participate in the accounts.
But overall, the president is right to gear his policies toward helping families on the lower half of the economic ladder. They have been largely left behind in the economic recovery, while very wealthy Americans have prospered disproportionately. The tax code is partly responsible for the imbalance and needs some correction.
Obama also had earned the right to emphasize that, in many ways, things are going well in the United States. Unemployment is at 5.6 percent and falling. Low gasoline and fuel prices are giving many Americans some financial breathing room. Health care costs are not rising at as rapid a rate as they had been. Despite a spate of overaggressive police actions that gripped the nation’s attention last year, the crime rate and incarceration rates have both dropped.
Still, there is much to worry about in a world where other economies remain crippled, where too many regimes remain dysfunctional and brutal and where terrorist threats are growing in number, sophistication and audacity.
Obama defended his broad policy of backing up military force with diplomacy and coalition building, but this section of his speech felt short on specifics and not entirely reassuring. He boasted of U.S. support of “a moderate opposition in Syria,” for instance, and said “this effort will take time.” But the conflict in Syria and U.S. ambivalence there has gone on much too long already, and the situation is growing worse.
The president’s vow to fight cyber threats inspired more confidence, and it was good to hear him speak out against torture, defend free speech, criticize the prospect of new sanctions on Iran and call for Americans to “reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims.”
Obama’s speech was meant to be inspirational, with more specifics on his economic proposals to be rolled out in coming days, including a visit by the president to the University of Kansas on Thursday.
The hopeful tone of the address landed nicely, as did Obama’s calls for Congress to work with him on matters such as cyber security, medical advances and a fairer criminal justice system.
Congress should take him up on some of those proposals. They could make winners of everyone.