President Obama’s State of the Union message this week outlined an appealingly progressive agenda for his second term: sane gun regulation, comprehensive immigration reform, action to curb man-made climate change, and needed investment in the nation’s future.
Now, if only the President could identify an equally compelling strategy for paying for his agenda, and getting a gridlocked Congress to enact it. Much will depend on the amount of public support he can attract to his program, to overcome both inevitable Republican obstructionism and timidity among lawmakers of his own party.
In his speech Tuesday night, Mr. Obama correctly observed that inflexible, across-the-board budget cutting is the wrong approach to reducing the debt and deficit, immediately and in the long term. He restated his formula for assisting economic growth: a balanced package of revenue increases and spending reductions — a sensible approach that GOP leaders have disdained.
The President argued properly for raising revenue by eliminating wasteful tax loopholes that unfairly benefit the richest Americans and corporations. But he was not as forthcoming about necessary reform of the entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — that account for 60 percent of federal spending.
On Medicare, Mr. Obama offered such good ideas as negotiating with drug companies to get better rates, and requiring better-off recipients to pay more for their benefits. But such proposals, which the President conceded are “modest,” are only the start of the changes needed to pare the debt and sustain entitlement programs in the long run, without mortgaging the nation’s future or harming the programs’ neediest beneficiaries.
The failure of meaningful budget reform, coupled with the still-sluggish economic recovery, could doom the sound domestic priorities the President identified this week, including universal public preschool, a higher federal minimum wage that would rise with inflation, and greater help from Washington to cope with rapidly rising college costs.
He also would accelerate government support of manufacturing (he cited a public-private innovation hub in Youngstown as an example), needed repairs of roads and bridges, and clean-energy technology. Such things can create jobs and promote economic growth.
On foreign affairs, Mr. Obama promised to reduce U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan by half over the next year, as Afghan forces properly assume greater responsibility for that nation’s defense. His call for a U.S.-European free-trade zone offers the promise of increasing exports and preserving American jobs. He was much more vague about how he plans to deal with such global hot spots as Syria, Iran, and the Middle East, and about how his administration will become more open in developing its criteria for targeting enemy combatants.
The President’s domestic agenda also includes such items as improved voting procedures — a particular concern in Ohio. He was especially eloquent in his demand that Congress act promptly on his package of gun reforms, including a renewed assault-weapons ban and tougher background checks of would-be gun buyers. He said of the families of victims of gun violence, some of whom were in the audience for his speech: “They deserve a vote.” He’s right.
President Obama warned recalcitrant lawmakers that he will act alone on issues such as global warming if they refuse to cooperate with him, but that strategy is limited. It would be far better if Congress would finally acknowledge the President’s electoral victory last November, and work with him to pursue the priorities and vision that American voters have affirmed.