In a speech as significant as the State of the Union, what is left unsaid matters as much as what is said.
Last night, President Obama laid out a clear charge: to “win the future.” Focusing on the steps to help America compete in the 21st century, the president outlined a vision to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world” in order to secure greater prosperity for all.
Yet the modest sampling of policy proposals seemed to pivot away from the ambitious attempt to take on long-term problems that marked the first two years of Mr. Obama’s administration, leaving unanswered the question of how exactly to win the future. The reality is that what it will really take to “win the future” is not a modest package of new programs and reforms that appeals to both sides of the aisle. It’s at least as much bold thinking as the president embraced over the past two years, and then a little more.
The address echoed some of Obama’s most celebrated speeches, such as the campaign speech on race and his recent address in Tucson. Rather than delving into policy specifics, the president played to his greatest strength – an ability to rise above politics and speak to the basic principles that unify Americans across the political spectrum.
Last night, that value was one of opportunity – America as “the story of ordinary people who dare to dream.”
Plan to innovate, but few clear steps
To help restore opportunity in America, the president outlined a plan to invest in innovation, reform education, and replace our crumbling infrastructure, while providing greater access to wireless and Internet-based technology.
The final step to winning the future, said Obama, was strong action to rein in deficits through a proposed five-year freeze on non-security, discretionary domestic spending (which the president himself acknowledged only comprises 12 percent of the federal budget).
Despite the president’s call to “take on the challenges that have been decades in the making,” he offered few clear steps to address some of the biggest obstacles he outlined.
This marks a genuine contrast to the governing approach we witnessed over the past two years. The stimulus, health-care reform, and financial reform initiatives together formed a bold trilogy aimed squarely at long-term structural problems.
Last night, with the exception of immigration, an issue the president said “we should take on, once and for all,” Obama either did not address – or backed away from – some of the greatest long-term challenges we face.
Backed away from greatest challenges
The president mentioned clean energy in the context of business, but replaced his campaign pledge to tackle climate change with a commitment to providing 80 percent of our power in 2035 through clean energy, including controversial sources such as natural gas, nuclear, and clean coal. Gone, too, was the promise of an intrepid cap-and-trade scheme – which passed the House but failed in the Senate – that would have reined in carbon emissions.
Obama discussed how education reform can boost high school graduation rates and proposed new measures to improve college affordability, but did not address the growing income inequality that education alone cannot solve.
In 2009, our national poverty rate hit a 15-year high, with one in seven Americans living below the poverty line. This has happened alongside a long-term trend toward greater income inequality, with 23.5 percent of all income going to the top one percent of earners in 2007 (compared to only 8.9 percent in 1976).
The president acknowledged that “the success of our people” is as important as corporate profits and overall economic growth. And he warned that spending cuts should not be carried out “on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.”
But he did not use the opportunity to remind Americans that growth coupled with escalating inequity is simply not enough. Nor did he remind us of Gandhi’s famous lesson that, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”
The speech took a turn towards addressing systemic problems when the president mentioned the health-care spending albatross and his openness to any idea to bring down costs. But he fell short by only giving mention to the Republican solution of reform aimed at reining in frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits.
The discarded notion of a public option now feels like a distant memory. The truth is that the public option was probably one of the few ways to truly stanch soaring health-care costs while ensuring that all remain insured, but the president backed away from that approach before the health care bill even passed. His stated openness to new ideas is refreshing, but until those ideas represent something more radical than tort reform, it’s unclear how we can genuinely “slow” costs, must less reduce them.
Threats to most vulnerable are threats to nation
Of course, the president’s more modest goals reflect the fact that his party no longer controls both chambers of Congress. And none of these omissions detracts from the power of Obama’s vision or the soundness of his proposals.
Each step of the president’s plan is essential to creating a more competitive America, one in which people of all backgrounds succeed. And there’s no question that the president is deeply committed to improving the opportunities of the most vulnerable, while protecting them from near-term harm every step of the way.
But the problems that threaten our most vulnerable are the problems that threaten the entire nation. Without addressing income inequality and the difficulties of a floundering middle and lower class, America cannot truly tackle the grand dilemmas of this “different world” that Obama outlined. Compromise alone will not address these issues. Only bold steps, at least as bold as before, will meet the challenges we face.
At a time when government programs to protect low income people and the environment are under threat and politicians have become allergic to terms like poverty and climate change, we must provide the most vulnerable with the foundation for a genuinely brighter future. Doing so is critical for the nation’s health and viability. This means more than playing a good defense on these issues. It requires a genuine offense – a plan that calls these problems what they are and lays out clear steps to solve them.
Some of that will require the president to continue offering bold ideas, and hopefully arguing for a better compromise. But much of that work will tap the other role of the president, that of a leader more than a governor.
The truth is that Americans have been ambivalent about how to address these problems long before Republicans took power. Real change means asking the American people to begin to think anew about the challenges we face. It means altering the political climate by reaching voters directly.
Political exigencies have forced Obama to scale back his policy ambitions while he continues to look boldly to a more prosperous future. But unless he has another dose of systemic reform waiting in the wings, ready for political winds to begin to change, we as a nation will fall short of truly winning the future.