What to Look For In The State Of The Union Address

Robert Borosage

As President Obama takes the stage tonight, he has one major thing going for him. It’s not the economy, which still leaves Americans fearful. It’s not his eloquence; pundits have even taken to disparaging his “full paragraphs” as not as forceful as Gingrich’s sound bites.

His major advantage is the team of horrors offered up by the Republican Party for leading the country. Their presidential nomination now features a food fight between –as Republicans correctly put it — a “vulture capitalist” and an inside the Beltway “influence peddler.” The Republican congressional majority offers an alley fight among wingnuts, earning them less popularity than communism in recent polling.

But the White House must resist the temptation to declare victory before the battle is done. The president still must run in an economy of mass unemployment and stagnant wages. He should not make the mistake of last year’s speech that hailed an economy “on the verge of recovery.” He must be the forceful advocate for change – not simply Horatio at the bridge defending us against the yahoos.

So here is what one progressive would like to see in the speech as it relates to the core economic challenges the country faces, given the political straits the president finds himself in.

1. Deepen the populist critique


The President promises to sustain the perspective he put forth in Osawatomie, Kansas. There he described forcefully how extreme inequality crippled our economy and corrupts our politics. That theme will surely frame his speech tonight.

He could deepen the critique by showing that the inequality resulted not simply from “natural” forces – globalization and technological change – but from failed policies, pursued by both parties over the past three decades: top end tax breaks, financial deregulation, perverse executive compensation schemes, a war on labor. That would not only have the distinct advantage of being true, but also would also lift the president above the partisan bickering, and make him clearly an advocate of the 99%.

2. Demand action on jobs



From that analysis comes the president’s broad argument that we can’t go back to that economy – as Republican candidates would have us do – we have to rebuild the economy on a sound foundation. That requires investment in education and training, in world-class infrastructure, in research and technology.

But first and foremost, that requires putting people to work – and the president should elevate demands for action on jobs. Congress has blocked his jobs plan – extending the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance, aid to states to forestall layoffs of teachers and cops, an infrastructure bank – so he will resell that. Progressives would at least like a clear recognition that this is not an answer but another step – and that the president will keep pushing until Americans get back to work.

Recognizing the fierce urgency of action is vital. The president wants desperately to get credit for all that has been done. For the months of job growth, generating more jobs in three years than Bush in eight, etc. But he must be the agent of change, not the defender of what is – both for the country and for his own re-election.

The president has forcefully called for rebuilding an economy that works for many – based on “fair play, a fair shot, and a fair share.” But that argument must be presented as essential to reviving growth and creating jobs, not one premised on making a recovering economy fair.

3. Take action on jobs

President Obama has promoted his “We Can’t Wait” initiatives – an odd frame for the third year of a presidency – to show that he will act even if Republicans continue to obstruct action in the Congress. These have increasingly descended into gestures, like the recent event to promote tourism.

The president would be well advised to make this far bolder. For example, why not take challenge Chinese mercantilism? Announce that US government procurement will penalize any country that does not offer equal access in its own procurement. Call on every state and locality to pass buy America provisions as part of its procurement policies.

Similarly, the president could take unilateral action on housing. Take up Ezra Klein’s suggestion. Make a recess appointment of a new head of the FHFA and issue rules making anyone with a mortgage held by Fannie or Freddie and current on their payments automatically eligible for refinancing. Send a letter to every eligible homeowner. This won’t solve the housing problem, but optimistic estimates are that it might provide financial relief to some 1o million families.

4. Take on the “entitlement-opportunity” argument

Mitt Romney argues that the president wants to transform America into an entitlement society, whereas he wants to return it to an American opportunity society.

The president would be well advised to take this on. Make the case that the entitlement crisis America faces comes from the sense of entitlement by the wealthiest Americans that they can pocket all the rewards of growth, and use their wealth to rig the rules so they don’t pay their fair share back to society.

And then argue forcefully that opportunity requires investment in rebuilding the country, and in people – in education and training, in early childhood nutrition, in affordable health care and retirement security, in a safety net when things go bad. Those who would shred public investments in our future would destroy the broad middle class that, in fact, is the triumph of American democracy.

No one is a better personification of that argument than Barack Obama. No one a better foil than Mitt Romney. Let’s get that on.

There is much more we’d want from a progressive president – from taking on the military budget, bringing the troops home, challenging the right on global warming, laying out a far bigger plan to rebuild the country, closing Guantanamo and curbing the extreme claims on national security prerogatives, and more. That is for other articles.

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