The President’s 2011 State of the Union Address Tuesday night was a call to think big in an age where Republicans at all levels of government are saying that we can’t take on the problems of our generation because taxes should be lower on the rich. This was one of the President’s best speeches, and it put him firmly in a place of leadership not long after the opposition made historic gains in the House of Representatives and out among the states.
Some people dismiss the annual State of the Union Address as purely-cosmetic, nothing more than the President’s to define both his intentions and his political capabilities in the best possible light; I never have been one of them. The State of the Union is the President’s means of using the bully pulpit to make a credible commitment to pursue a set of policies over the course of the following year, Congressional prerogatives be damned. While there have been dramatic failures in implementation–Recall George W. Bush’s unheeded calls to flatten and simplify the income tax and create those (fortunately-nonexistent) investment accounts for Social Security in the 2005 State of the Union Address–most Presidents usually do diligently pursue the policies enumerated in the State of the Union. Of course, the President has set a list of priorities, some preexisting, some bold, some an attempt to reach out to a new Republican House majority with radically different policy goals. But these shifts themselves are significant, indicating the President’s sense of his capacity to take the initiative in the face of a major political setback. This State of the Union suggests that the President’s vision hasn’t been shaken, but that he recognizes future initiatives must be conceived, or at least framed, in terms of a centrist fixation on jobs. Furthermore, House Republicans’ insistence on cutting Federal spending and regulations must be both gratified and attacked; it is sound politics to invite them to be part of the solution regardless of the extent to which they heed the invitation.
Considering the Republicans hold 242 seats in the House–55.6% of the body that sets the budget and where partisan control is decisive–and a majority of state legislatures and governorships in the years of Congressional reapportionment, President Obama will have virtually no capacity to set legislative and budget priorities going forward if he cannot make deals with the people who brought you the “Pledge to America.”
The Liberal Ironist would like to address his “wish-list” of measures for in the 2011 State of the Union Address. To review, they were…
A new financial commitment to highway and transit spending;
A new financial commitment to keep States’ psychiatric services open, possibly including a new Federal mandate;
A revisit of the purpose of an assault weapons ban–the outlaw of the possession or sale of high-capacity ammunition clips;
A stern reminder that global warming is very real, and a call for climate legislation–without the cap-and-trade protocols so-vilified by the Republicans;
A call to the United States to aid the democratic transition unfolding in Tunisia–on the opposition leaders’ terms–and a warning to other Middle Eastern dictators that political and economic reforms are absolutely necessary;
and finally: A warm greeting to Speaker Boehner, and an acknowledgment that a little partisanship is good for us.
I’m calling 2.5 out of 6 of those wishes accommodated by the State of the Union. The President made the call for expanding our transportation infrastructure–as well as aggressive new investments in telecommunications infrastructure–that I’d hoped for, he received the new Speaker of the House warmly while acknowledging the endurance of partisan differences without frustration or contempt, and while he seems to have conceded the issue of new vehicle emissions regulations for the time being, he is proposing new investments in alternatives to petroleum consumption along the pragmatic “all-of-the-above” approach that has become mainstream since the debates over President George W. Bush’s proposed “National Energy Policy.”
There was no mention in the President’s Address of dangerous cuts being made to the States’ mental health services, our lack of adequate regulation of high-capacity bullet magazines, legislation to reduce the rate of man-made global warming, or call to stand with the Tunisian people and reform our blowback-prone foreign policy towards Arab autocracies. While the President laid out a bold alternative to the Republicans’ agenda, he delivered proposals that were integrated with his theme of investment in the (jobs of the) next generation, rather than an ideologically-informed charge on multiple policy fronts.
One call in the State of the Union surprised me: I didn’t expect the President to say anything about immigration. While it was frustratingly-short on specifics, President Obama seems to be calling for something like George W. Bush’s migrant worker legalization plan, which had been reworked in Congressional negotiations to include stiffened border patrols and fence construction in order to placate Conservatives. That initiative didn’t just fail to survive filibuster in the Senate, it didn’t get majority support. The odds of immigration reform may seem more-distant because now, unlike then, Republicans control the House of Representatives; however, if any immigration reform plan that included some naturalization component could pass in the House of Representatives–a big if–the chance of another Republican-led filibuster in the Senate is diminished. In sum, it was bold for the President to call for immigration reform under current political constraints, but not surprising that he said nothing more than that he wished “to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers now living in the shadows.” That generality and way of tacking both right and left on the issue is intended as another invitation to a bipartisan compromise on the issue from within Congress; to be frank, that sounds like wishful thinking that will go nowhere once again.
The Republicans were elected on their strongest anti-government platform at least since 1994, in their biggest wave since 1938. It’s possible that House Republicans will consent to spending increases in certain areas, but overall spending is going down, period. Even if the President vetos the relatively steep spending cuts the Republicans are proposing, he can’t tell Speaker Boehner or the Republican committee chairs–the real power in Congress now with the possible exception of the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders–what to do. So the President can soften Republican spending cuts somewhat, but he can only achieve their cooperation on new programs if he can broadly-accommodate their demands.
I’m most concerned that President Obama secures Republican support for new highway and transit spending. John Mica, the new Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, supports a massive new highway bill, and is calling for spending increases to be covered by private investments and new toll roads rather than increases to taxes or the deficit. While this is the biggest new spending item the President is proposing, I don’t think people recognize, even after the horrifying spectacle of a bridge carrying Interstate 35W in Minneapolis collapsing into the Mississippi River during rush hour, the poor condition of our transportation infrastructure. Businesses won’t invest in this because there’s usually no profit in it, but one of the biggest drivers of economic growth in metropolitan areas is mobility.
3 Republican initiatives have received a big boost from the President now: nationwide tort reform to restrict awards in medical malpractice lawsuits, a lowering of the corporate income tax for the first time in 25 years, and stricter border enforcement. With a Democratic President offering such controversial proposals to a Republican House, they can have them–if they play ball.