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Published: Wednesday, 1/26/2011

State of the Union

President Obama, in his State of the Union message Tuesday night, outlined two critical goals: new federal spending to promote economic growth and global competitiveness, and a serious commitment to meaningful reduction of the national debt.

He did less well at explaining how he intends to accomplish austerity and investment at the same time. Of course, his Republican detractors didn't even bother to try.

The President is correct that even in a bad economy, the nation must make a broad range of strategic investments: in infrastructure, in education, in alternative energy, in scientific research and innovation, in health care. Such spending will create jobs, strengthen long-term productivity, and reduce state-sanctioned inequality.

At some points during his speech, Mr. Obama identified not only measurable goals but also specific and proper funding sources for his proposals, such as ending federal subsidies of oil companies. At other times, though, he was disappointingly vague.

He promised, for example, that his plan to accelerate highway and bridge repair would be fully paid for - but he didn't say how. A higher federal tax on gasoline would seem the appropriate solution, and would achieve other desirable national goals, but Mr. Obama did not propose that.

On deficit reduction, the President warned that Americans will have to endure painful measures if the country is to avoid fiscal disaster. But all he would commit himself to was a five-year freeze on "discretionary" domestic spending, leaving mostly untouched the vast bulk of the budget set aside for national defense and entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Even then, Mr. Obama conceded the nation must "stop pretending," as GOP lawmakers routinely do, that slashing discretionary spending will solve the budget problem. To the contrary, such an unbalanced deficit plan will harm Americans, including the youngest citizens.

Yet while the President acknowledged that the Pentagon and some entitlements will have to take reasonable cuts, he went no further, and even seemed to declare Social Security off limits. He called for tax simplification and reform, and lower corporate rates, but not the tax increases and limits on individual deductions that also will be necessary to curb the deficit.

He renewed his call to repeal the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans, even though he agreed just last month to extend those cuts to win Republican support on other issues. He largely ignored the sound, if tough, recommendations of his own deficit-reduction commission.

On other matters, notably his advocacy of trade agreements and medical malpractice reform, Mr. Obama was willing to confront members of his own party. His demands for more-efficient government offered a useful challenge to pork-craving politicians of both parties.

President Obama set an inspirational and reassuring tone in his speech. He reminded Congress that both parties will need to cooperate to get anything done in the next two years.

He was sincere in his willingness to work with opposition Republicans. As he did in Tucson this month, he reminded all Americans that much more unites us than divides us.

But as the leader of the government and the nation, the President now has the obligation to put hard detail behind his encouraging words about how to "win the future." Since he avoided doing so in this week's speech, the budget proposal he sends Congress next month becomes an even more urgent opportunity.



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