The themes that President Obama addressed in his sixth State of the Union message, such as the growth of income inequality and the need for expanded economic opportunity, were larger than the measures he proposed in response. That could reflect the President’s understanding of how much of the heavy lifting he may have to do by himself on these issues, despite his plaintive — and likely futile — invitation to Republican lawmakers, as well as timid Democrats, to “make progress together.”
Still, the program Mr. Obama offered this week for “a year of action” includes useful initiatives and ample opportunity for bipartisan collaboration. But the President also included a forthright challenge to GOP obstructionists on Capitol Hill: As they continue to block his agenda, he will work around them as much as he can. If nothing else, this approach will clearly define differences between the parties for this year’s congressional elections.
In the absence of overdue action by Congress to boost the federal minimum wage, for example, the President said he would raise that wage from the current $7.25 an hour to $10.10 for the relatively small number of workers employed under newly awarded federal contracts. He called on states such as Ohio (where the minimum wage is $7.95 an hour) and profitable private businesses to increase pay voluntarily.
Mr. Obama demanded progress — again — on comprehensive immigration reform, an issue of growing importance to Ohio. House Republicans finally appear ready to address that issue, albeit in an inadequate, piecemeal fashion so far. The President chided Congress for its unconscionable failure to extend emergency jobless benefits for 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans, including 39,000 in Ohio and 3,200 in the Toledo area.
President Obama called for expanding the federal earned income tax credit — a program extolled by Ronald Reagan — to childless workers. His proposal to create a new vehicle for retirement savings is promising, but needs more detail.
He revived other good ideas for education, from universal preschool to greater incentives for high schools to improve science, math, and technology instruction. To help create jobs and promote economic fairness, he proposed an overhaul of the federal tax code and patent law, better job training, manufacturing institutes, reform of housing finance, and trade agreements that are not distorted by protectionism or nativism.
The President properly warned lawmakers of both parties that he will veto any attempt to derail through further economic sanctions the talks aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And he reasonably asked GOP lawmakers not to waste time with “another 40-something votes” to repeal Obamacare, “a law that’s already helping millions of Americans.”
More distressing was the lack of adequate attention the President paid in this week’s speech to other vital issues. There was little talk of long-term budget or entitlement reform. He cited the pending end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, but had little to say about such global trouble spots as Egypt and Syria.
Unlike his address last year, weeks after the Newtown school massacre, this year’s message did not include a clarion call for sane gun reform. His demands for such civil rights as pay equity for women and greater equality for gay Americans were more rhetorical than substantive.
Mr. Obama did not address the nation’s continued, destructive policy of mass imprisonment. His renewed appeal to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure did not give mass transit its due.
And Ohioans might have preferred a more explicit acknowledgment of the need to protect Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes from toxic algae and invasive species, as an essential element of environmental policy.
Still, the ambitious agenda the President outlined this week gave Washington a long to-do list. Despite his go-it-alone stance, his speech left plenty of room for bipartisan collaboration.
If GOP lawmakers truly place the national welfare ahead of their own political prospects, in a way that they didn’t when they engineered last year’s disastrous government shutdown, they’ll take the President up on his offer. Either way, their choice will be instructive to voters.