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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.

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The American people expect optimism; they applaud presidents who lay out lofty goals and cast a promising vision for the coming year. But last night’s address stretched these expectations too far. Such bold domestic and global initiatives would cost trillions of dollars, yet the president was silent on how to fund them. A truly deficit-neutral approach would require significant new revenues. Can we honestly expect that this long list of bold initiatives would not increase the deficit?

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The coming year offers Obama his best opportunity for legislative success. Next year, members of Congress will be more focused on the midterm election than on forging legislative compromise. By 2015, legislators will be preparing their parties and themselves for the presidential race, and Obama will be a lame duck.

Obama has a short window of time to accomplish his goals, so he needs to spend his political capital wisely. Instead of exerting significant efforts promoting a long list of programs, many of which have no hope of success in the Republican-led House, he should focus his efforts on a few policies that have a reasonable chance of gaining the bipartisan momentum necessary to become law.

After decades of impasse, lawmakers seem ready to move forward with bipartisan immigration reform. Gun-control legislation seems possible. There is even bipartisan support for many elements of tax reform. President Obama should foster such bipartisan cooperation while the political moment remains, working with Congress to build trust, bridge divides, and usher in needed reform.

Budget issues loom large, and Congress needs to act. If Congress and the president can succeed on areas where consensus is already beginning to build, such actions would offer real hope that leaders in both parties could honestly and constructively work together to find long-term solutions for compounding fiscal problems.

The current political climate calls for leaders who can release legislative logjams, rise above partisan finger pointing, convince policymakers to make hard decisions, and model a better way. Barack Obama has the opportunity to be such a leader, but last night’s speech offered little evidence that the president will chart such a path in his second term.

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. At a time of bitter partisan resentment and declining trust in government, the nation needs honest talk and genuine calls for shared sacrifice. We need statesmanship, not more politics as usual.

Amy E. Black is associate professor of political science and chair of the department of politics and international relations at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.

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