President Obama laid out a series of initiatives in his State of the Union speech that amounted not only to an agenda for the coming year, but a yardstick by which voters could measure Congress in advance of next year’s midterm elections.
By and large, his proposals are in line with the nation’s needs and, in a less rancorous time, could find some measure of bipartisan support. Sadly, most will probably turn to ashes in the blast furnace of congressional partisanship. Politically, that may benefit Democrats in the long run, but it’s not much good for the country.
Start with the deficit, as Obama did in Tuesday’s address. He offered to negotiate “modest” reforms to Medicare, but noted that budget cuts alone aren’t an economic growth policy and also that seniors and others without means can’t be asked, alone, to fix the problem of the deficit.
As a story in Wednesday’s Buffalo News reported, the government ran a budget surplus in January and the government is on track to produce its smallest annual budget deficit since President George W. Bush’s last year in office. Why? Because the government is collecting more revenue – because of economic growth and higher taxes – and because the government is spending less on some programs. Take in more money, spend less and the deficit goes down. Lesson: Arithmetic works.
Bill Clinton applied that lesson early in his presidency and the economy soared. That lesson may be lost on Congress, but it shouldn’t be lost on voters who want to see Washington work on behalf of Americans who pay congressional salaries.
Obama offered a middle-of-the-road plan on immigration reform, proposing tougher border security and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, who would have to pay a penalty and get in line behind those who came here legally. It’s a practical approach to a problem without any easy solution. Republicans, whom Hispanics routinely punish at the polls, would be wise to adopt a similar approach if they harbor any hopes of increasing their support within the nation’s fastest-growing minority.
The president also promoted an increase in the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour from the existing rate of $7.25. This is a sensible approach and less controversial than critics make it out to be. The mere existence of a minimum wage presupposes that it will be increased from time to time. If it weren’t, the nation would still have a minimum wage of 25 cents an hour, the wage first established by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The federal minimum wage was last increased four years ago. It’s time to do it again.
New Yorkers and others in the Northeast have well learned the price of continuing to pretend that climate change is anything but real and deadly serious. Turning back the forces that are causing climate change will be a long-term project; adapting to the consequences of change cannot be, as the people of Manhattan, Staten Island and Rockaway understand, along with millions of others who were devastated by Superstorm Sandy.
Washington and the states need to act now. Obama demanded congressional action, but also vowed to take administrative steps. What they would be he did not say, but with catastrophic storms pummeling this state in two consecutive years, the luxury of debating the existence of climate change is no longer ours.
Most powerfully, Obama insisted that Americans who support better control of guns deserve a vote, not the congressional cold shoulder. Vast majorities of Americans support better controls in the aftermath of the slaughter in Newtown, Conn., understanding that there is no conflict between the Second Amendment and a gun registry or limits on the size of magazines.
There was more, no doubt poll-tested, but also sensible: on making voting easier; preventing cyber attacks; ending the war in Afghanistan. It was, all in all, an effective speech that lays out challenges for both the president’s adversaries and his supporters. But it was just a speech. Action will determine what happens in the coming months and in the next election.