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Opinion

State of the Union: US needs a statesman, but Obama played politics as usual (+video)

President Obama devoted most of his State of the Union address to a laundry list of initiatives – and no answer for how to pay for them. Instead, he should foster bipartisan cooperation, working with Congress to build trust, bridge divides, and usher in needed reform.

By Amy E. Black / February 13, 2013

President Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill Feb. 12. Op-ed contributor Amy E. Black writes: 'Promising the world with no explanation of how to pay for it is irresponsible. Both parties have followed this path for too many years, and the result is massive deficits and spiraling debt.'

Charles Dharapak/AP

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Wheaton, Ill.

To many, the state of America’s union is fractious. Distrust, disdain, and suspicion permeate American politics. Divisions within and between the two major parties have stymied the legislative process.

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Last night in his State of the Union address, President Obama had the opportunity to rise above the partisan bickering and distrust and set a positive tone for his final term. What could have been a triumph of statesmanship was instead an all-too-common display of politics as usual.

Traditionally, presidents hope to accomplish three goals in a State of the Union address. They assess the current situation facing the country, present a political agenda for the coming year, and reaffirm underlying values. In sum, the speech should artfully connect the past, present, and future and solidify the president’s role as a political leader.

Last night, Mr. Obama failed to meet these goals. In the midst of an ongoing budget crisis, he devoted most of his speech to announcements of expensive new proposals. More than 8 million Americans remain unemployed, but instead of casting a vision of a clear set of actionable priorities for the coming legislative year, he offered a laundry list of initiatives – and no answer for how to pay for them.

After promising to “lay out additional proposals that are fully paid for and fully consistent with the budget framework,” the president then restated the point: “Let me repeat, nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime.” Such assurances are welcome in these challenging fiscal times, but the promise appears hollow.

Consider just a few of the major programs Obama trumpeted in last night’s speech. The United States will “reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race,” help states improve energy efficiency, go “all-in” to support alternative energy, “upgrade our infrastructure,” offer tax incentives to encourage job growth, “[invest] in world-class care, including mental health care, for our wounded warriors,” and “make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.” 

And the initiatives don’t end at our national borders. Obama promised to work with other countries to eliminate extreme poverty worldwide, “[save] the world’s children from preventable deaths,” and achieve “the promise of an AIDS-free generation.”

Obama’s list of proposals addresses many laudable goals. Indeed, many of these policies echo ideas and themes presidents from both parties have introduced in previous State of the Union addresses. But all of these policies come with incredibly hefty price tags.

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